One of the things I love about traveling, ether overseas or around the United States, is finding little historical locations completely by accident and unexpectedly. As when passing through the town of LeRoy New York and finding that’s where Jell-O dessert was created.
This again happened on my wife’s and my visit to the State of Washington. After a day of sightseeing north of Vancouver Washington we decided to find a place to have dinner. What we felt like having was pizza but not from one of those pizza chains, something local. Using the app on our smartphone we found a pizzeria that sounded good only 3 miles off of I-5 in the town of Ridgefield. As we entered the city there on the welcome sign it read, “Welcome to Ridgefield, the birthplace of U-Haul.” We had struck obscure historical gold again.
I believe that just about everyone in the United States has rented from U-Haul at least once, ether one of their trailers or trucks. The story of U-Haul is another one of entrepreneurial inspiration and hard work, but as with the story of McDonald’s and Jell-O it has a sad side also.
U-Haul’s beginnings is a simply tale of a couple needing something, not being able find it, then building a business to fulfill that need for others. The story of U-Haul begins in Los Angeles California in 1945 at the end of World War II when the newly discharged 29 year old Navy veteran Leonard “Sam” Shoen and his wife, Anna Mary, tried to rent a tailer to take their belongings north to Portland Oregon. What they found was that there were trailer rental companies in Los Angeles but they could only be used around that city, and they were also very small. Cramming what luggage they could, along with their small son, into their 1937 Ford they headed north. On their way to Portland they talked about the need for a trailer rental that people could use from city to city or even from state to state on a one way bases. Besides coming up with this business plan they also came up with a name for their company, U-Haul.
With a $5,000 investment Sam began building his trailers in the garage on Anna Mary’s parent’s home just outside of Ridgefield Washington. Shoen’s idea was to build the trailers and then find partnering gas stations, which would be franchised agents, to rent them, and splitting the rental fees. Within two weeks of them leaving Los Angeles the first of their 4’ X 7’ U-Haul trailers was sitting at a Mobil gas station on Interstate Street in Portland ready to be rented.
Shoen came up with a great marketing plan; First he developed a unique look for his trailers by painting them bright orange. Secondly he identified all of his trailers with the name, U-Haul Co. And thirdly he included advertising messages on each trailer that read: “Trailer Rental,” and “$2.00 Per Day.” In addition to helping grow his U-Haul outlets he offered discounts to customers that signed up gas station agents at their destination.
All of Shoen’s hard work and marketing paid off; by the end of 1949 you could rent a U-Haul trailer one way to almost any city in the United States, and by 1955 you could rent one throughout Canada. By the end of 1959 the U-Haul trailer fleet numbered over 42,600 trailers across North America. In 1951 Shoen reorganized the U-Haul Trailer Rental Company under a new holding company named Associated Rental Companies of American (ARCOA). In 1967 Shoen moved the corporate offices from Portland Oregon to Phoenix Arizona.
Today U-Haul remains the largest do-it-yourself moving rental company in the country. Since Sam Shoen’s first trailers U-Haul has added to its lineup trucks, vans and large storage containers. Some of their franchises also offer self-storage units, package shipping supplies, and alternative-fuels for vehicles and backyard grills.
A success marred with tragedies
On May 4, 1957 Sam came home and expressed to Anna Mary how great things were going for them and U-Haul, life couldn’t have been better. That night tragedy struck, Anna died of a heart attack at only 34 years old, and Sam was left with six young children to care for. Doctors had told Anna not to have children because of her heart condition, but she and Sam couldn’t resist having a large family.
After Anna’s death Shoen married four more times, three ending in divorce. He would also father six more children with his other wives in addition to the six with Anna. Shoen made all of his children stockholders in ARCOA, leaving only 2% of the stock and control for himself. In 1986 two of his sons, Mark and Edward launched a successful takeover of the business to which Sam could do nothing about.
On October 4, 1999 Leonard Shoen was killed in Las Vegas Nevada when he ran his car into a telephone pole, he was 83 years old. The Cook County Coroner’s office ruled it a suicide.
Finding the site where Shoen built his first U-Haul trailers
I went to the Ridgefield City’s website to see if they told the location of Anna’s parent’s ranch and the garage Sam used to build his trailers in. Under the heading of, “what to see in Ridgefield,” it showed the location and an address just north of the downtown. The problem we had was that the address on the website didn’t match up with the road that was indicated on the map. We even asked those working in the restaurant if they knew where it was, to no avail. After multiple times driving back and forth we finally gave up. But somewhere on one of those back country roads north of the town is a garage where U-Haul began.
Going back to why we went to Ridgefield to begin with, to find a local pizzeria. What we found was Vinnie’s. Vinnie’s is a small family restaurant specializing in simple Italian fare.
Salvatore Oliveri, a Sicilian restaurateur, began his journey across the United States from New York city bringing his family recipe for the perfect New York style pizza with him. The Oliveri family is still very much involved is maintaining the quality and service at their restaurants.
My wife and I started with a delicious Mediterranean salad, followed by their “Combination” pizza. The pizza was fantastic, and a true New York style in crust and sauce.
After we finished our server asked if we’d like dessert, we asked “what do you have?” She went down a list of six items ending with Cannoli and Tiramisu, of which she said, “Mama had just made them.” We had both, and they were to die for.
We like Vinnie’s so much that we made the trek out from Vancouver once again before we left.
They also have a location in Vancouver, but we liked the small town feel of their Ridgefield restaurant, so I highly recommend going there. And while you’re in Ridgefield see if you can find that garage, the true birthplace of U-Haul.
if you like this post please read my others on how businesses got started: McDonald’s Restaurants, Jell-O, and Starbucks.