Kim and Les Cardwell can quote you chapter and verse on the population decline in Knox County, which ranks 111th out of Missouri’s 114 counties in number of residents. They sadly recall when the farm crisis hit northeast Missouri with a vengeance, nearly killing once bustling communities like their hometown, Edina.
But the two Lewis County Rural Electric Cooperative members never gave up on their hometown. Today, people from all over the world find tiny Edina in person or on the Internet to order a host of personalized products from the Cardwell’s unusual business, Hardwood Xpress.
“I had a chance right out of school to go to the city and work,” Les related. “I graduated in the early ’80s. The economy was the darkest I’ve ever seen it. But this is where I wanted to live. We are fortunate to raise our kids in a place like this. I am proud of our community.”
Like most small business owners, the Cardwells had to weather another downturn in the economy in 2008. They ran a logging and lumber business that took timber from northeast Missouri and turned it into quality hardwoods.
When the crash came, they looked for something to add value to a seriously depressed lumber industry.
“We still had a good market,” Les said. “What happened, soft maple and red oak went to half of its price. Instead of selling lumber way below market prices we decided to do it a different way. That’s why we started this business.”
Working for a time out of his basement, Les crafted unique items from lumber he took from his own sawmill. It was a lot like every other woodworking shop with one big difference. The two bought a computer-controlled laser engraver that could be used to make every item personal. The machine burns a precision image into wood and other materials.
Quickly, the business moved to the courthouse square in Edina. This let the two expand into large volume work. They also added a second piece of equipment that ensured Hardwood Xpress could do what few others could—take on big orders without sacrificing quality.
Here, you will see the bandsaws, sanders and table saws that are typical of most woodworking shops. But in one corner there’s another machine the old timers might stare at in wonder. It’s a computer-controlled router capable of matching any pattern with amazing precision. It can even change tools on its own to reproduce with incredible detail.
With Les creating the products and Kim adding the personal touches, Hardwood Xpress gained a reputation as the place to go for quality products and customized orders.
So how has this business succeeded when so many others have fallen victim to overseas competition? “The first secret is it is all our own wood,” Les said. “We have access to the first choice on lumber. The next thing is, when most people look at making a product on a large scale, their first consideration is price. Here, we try to go with quality first and then figure out a way to make it at a good price.”
They also have imaginations that create lasting memories for their customers. One example is their recipe boxes. Lots of people make these, designed to hold index cards with favorite recipes. But the Cardwells take a beautiful wood box and then engrave a recipe on the lid in Grandma’s actual handwriting.
Another big seller is the $30 baby blocks made from Missouri red oak. These can include the baby’s initials, date of birth and any image the customer wants. Many families buy one of these blocks for the baby’s birth, then continue them for just about every life event.
“Really, it’s a memory block,” Kim said. “By the time they are 18, they take their first steps, they made their first communion or maybe they were the fair queen.”
The best sellers for the small-town business are breadboards, cutting boards and keepsake boxes. These typically are made from hard maple or cherry and are personalized with family names, logos or just about any image. “People say they are too pretty to use,” Kim said. “But everything we make is designed to be used. They will hold up well with normal use.”
Another favorite is the name benches made for kids. These cost $50 and feature large letters painted in bright colors that drop into the bench.
One of their best customers is Lewis County Rural Electric Cooperative. Travis Mathes, manager of member services and government relations for the co-op, approached the Cardwells when he became frustrated trying to find American-made products to give away at the co-op’s annual meeting.
“We wanted something that was not just made in the USA, but also in our service area,” he said. “I checked with them and they went above and beyond what I was looking for. We did breadboards one year and the next year I asked for trivets. They worked four months coming up with that. It is great seeing someone rejuvenating a community.”
The business can make one item for you or it can turn out hundreds. They routinely work with FFA chapters, churches and others that need something for a fundraiser. Many brides and grooms make a stop at the store in Edina to find gifts for their wedding parties. While the focus is on wood items, the Cardwells also can personalize glass and metal.
“We like for it to be something they will give to a child, and they will give it to their grandchild,” Les said. “It’s not throw-away stuff. We are making the next generation’s heirlooms.”
Jim McCarty is editor of Rural Missouri magazine.