Old sawmill gone forever

Site planned for automobile shop
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Photo by Curt Knoke Owner Irvin Kroenke, left, is shown with some of his employees inside the Kroenke Sawmill, which operated in the town of Richmond from the 1960s through the 1990s.

For decades, Kroenke Sawmill was the place builders went for lumber when assembling homes and other structures in the Shawano area.

The once-bustling industrial operation west of Shawano has been idle for years and soon could be redeveloped into a new type of business.

A prospective buyer has unveiled plans to transform the 11-acre property in the town of Richmond into a shop for repairing and selling automobiles.

While the redevelopment brings renewed activity to a dormant industrial location, it also signals the end of an era at the former site of the successful family-owned sawmill.

“Those days are gone,” said Christine Opperman, who bought the property from the Kroenke family with hopes of renewing the sawmill operation.

Instead, Opperman now plans to sell the site to Shannon Behnke, an entrepreneur who intends to conduct automobile repairs and sales there, while also living in an existing home on the property.

The Richmond Town Board on Monday will consider approving a permit to clear the way for redevelopment of the old sawmill site at W8819 Broadway Road.

Town Clerk Rick Stadelman said town planners have endorsed the proposal and officials are looking forward to seeing Behnke’s new business in operation.

“This is his vision, and we wish him well,” Stadelman said. “We hope he’s successful.”

Behnke could not be reached for comment, and details of his plans for transforming the site were not known.

Sawmill owner Irvin Kroenke opened for business in the early 1960s and found great success supplying lumber for the construction of homes and other structures in the surrounding area and beyond. Able to produce 30-foot-long timbers, the sawmill at the corner of Broadway and Beech Road supplied materials for a variety of structures.

Joel Kroenke said his father’s business even provided lumber for the restoration of Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, in the early 1990s.

“My dad had quite the legacy,” Joel Kroenke said.

Irvin Kroenke retired and sold the property around 2002 to Opperman, whose family owned Sorenson Lumber in Shawano. Irvin Kroenke died in 2013 at age 92.

Opperman’s son reopened the business as Red River Sawmill, but it closed after about one year.

Joel Kroenke, who still lives nearby, said he is pleased to hear that an entrepreneur has stepped forward with plans to renew the site. Kroenke said the building industry has changed too much for a place like the Kroenke Sawmill to ever flourish again.

“Things have their life span,” he said. “The days of hands-on craftsmanship and hard work are slipping away.”