Tuesday, September 9, 2003
When Denny Fisher bought land to build a gas station on the corner of what is now Cascade Avenue and Rand Road in 1952, there was nothing around but piles of rocks. Across the street was a swamp.
“People told me I’d never make it way out here,” Denny recalls. The downtown bustle of Hood River, such as it was in the 1950s, was far away to the east.
But Denny bought the land anyway. Three-quarters of an acre for $3,500. He built his gas station. And though it changed into other things over the years, it became a place to spend a lifetime.
It took Denny a year to construct the cinder block building and he opened Denny’s Associated Services in 1953, which soon became Flying A Service. Interstate 84 was being constructed through the Gorge, which would soon divert most traffic away from Highway 30 running past the Flying A. But Denny had enough business. He had a one-stall body shop that seemed to always have a car up on the lift. His two gas pumps were kept busy filling the tanks of local cars and those exiting the new freeway — who came upon Denny’s station first.
And Denny was resourceful. A few years after building the station, he began what would become a half-century of evolution of the building at Cascade and Rand — an evolution that would remain firmly in the hands of Denny and his family.
Four years after he built the station, Denny added onto it — nearly doubling the size — and leased the extra space to Wonder Bread, which used it as the company’s Hood River depot. When the bread trucks delivered their loads, their drivers would get the trucks serviced at Denny’s station. His children, Kirk and Karen, washed the trucks.
Along with the Wonder Bread trucks, Denny got the business of many other commercial truck drivers in area.
“I had the main bulk of the truck business — Wonder Bread, Carnation Milk, the AGA trucks, Diamond Fruit,” Denny recalls. Another addition at the back of the building housed a mechanic’s stall for a while — a position filled by Denny’s uncle. Then the space was converted into a thrift store.
When Wonder Bread moved elsewhere in the 1960s, Denny expanded the thrift store into that space. And he continued to pump gas — now under the banner of Phillips 66, which had bought Flying A.
By the early 1970s, Denny had become disabled and could no longer continue to run the gas station. He took the pumps out and began searching for the next role the building would play.
“It was during that time I got took,” Denny says. A man came in one day with a proposal to convert the station into a pizza parlor. Denny began remodeling the former station’s interior. He placed orders with the man for pizza ovens and other equipment — and paid him for them. Then one day the man disappeared, and along with him Denny’s money.
With the conversion to a restaurant well underway, Denny’s son entered the business with him and they decided to make it into a hamburger joint. Called Denny’s Place, it became famous around town for its 39 cent hamburgers.
“There was a drive-up window right up front,” Denny says. “We did $55,000 worth of business that first year.” Luhr Jensen then had its facility at the top of Rand Road, and its employees “used to come down for lunch and buy burgers by the sack full,” Denny recalls.
After about a decade as a burger joint, Denny’s Place was ready for its next metamorphosis. Denny and Kirk partnered with Pine Grove farmer Jack Mears and, in 1983, converted the building’s back portion into Little Bit Ranch Supply, where they sold livestock feed. The thrift store took up some space and the front of the building was the Greyhound Bus depot.
Little Bit soon outgrew its quarters and took up more and more of the thrift store space. After the bus depot moved in the early 1990s, the ranch supply business took over most of the building, with the exception of the small thrift store.
In the late 1980s, Mears died and Kirk and Denny Fisher bought his share of the business. Kirk ran Little Bit and Denny “got less involved,” although he continued to drive the feed truck to Hermiston, McMinneville and Portland to pick up feed and haul it back to the store. A loading dock was added onto the southwest corner of the building for offloading truckloads of feed and supplies.
“Eventually the business grew enough to where we’d place big enough orders that they’d deliver them,” Denny says. Denny and his wife started spending winters in Arizona. But when he was in town, he’d spend hours a day at the shop, helping in any way he could.
In May, the latest metamorphosis at the 50-year-old building took place when Denny’s daughter, Karen Howard, and her husband Bob, bought the business. They began doing an extensive remodel, and Denny helped all along the way. Although he calls himself “a flunky,” Denny painted most of the building — which was like walking down memory lane; while prepping the building for new paint, Denny’s old painted mural advertising 39 cent hamburgers was exposed.
Although the ranch supply store has been substantially transformed over the past few months, many vestiges of the original building remain. The base of the mechanic’s lift from the old body shop sits on the floor among the saddles. The original Boraxo hand soap dispenser hangs above the sink in the old gas station’s original bathroom.
Over the past 50 years, Denny sold off chunks of his original property. Now, Little Bit Ranch Supply sits on the remaining 4/10 of an acre, surrounded on all sides by commerce. West Cascade, as it’s now called, is a bustling commercial center — unrecognizable from the rock pile and swamp of 50 years ago.
Denny Fisher sits in the original office of his former gas station — now his daughter’s office — and looks back on it all.
“I had no idea,” he says. No idea that this corner, this cinder block building, would be a place to spend a lifetime.