By Elizabeth Smolens & Elizabeth Roccia
Best known as the longtime proprietors of the Willamette General Store, three generations of Fritchies have supplied West Linn with more than hardware. For over eight decades, the Fritchie family contributed to the West Linn community in countless ways. West Linn’s history cannot be recounted without the Fritchie name.
“You don’t live and work somewhere for 50 years without touching the lives of a lot of people,” said Betty Fritchie.
Fritchies Arrival in Oregon
Like many families, the Fritchies’ lives were changed forever when the Great Depression hit in 1929. Ben was born in September of that year to a young newlywed couple. Ben Sr. owned a dray and transfer company in Nebraska. He had a crew that emptied freight cars and delivered goods but the minimum wage law implemented by the Roosevelt administration as a result of the Great Depression drove him out of business. The minimum wage was set at 25 cents an hour.
In 1933 Ben Sr. and his wife Edna, her sister and husband, plus 3 kids packed the car and trailer with everything they owned and left Nebraska. They started out for Fisher’s Mill, Oregon where one of Edna’s brothers lived. This was not an easy trip. The car broke down in Montpelier, Idaho so the two grown men worked in a mine until they came up with the money to purchase another car and finish the trip to Oregon.
Jobs in Oregon were scarce in the 30s. The family rented a small cabin near Fisher’s Mill where all seven lived. Following work around the area, subsequent moves took them to Springwater, Estacada, and Kernville. By this time, another baby girl joined the family so Ben, Edna and children moved once again and finally ended up in Willamette. By this time, Ben Jr.and his brother (in school now) had transferred between several schools. Back then, lessons varied from school to school causing Ben to repeat a few grades. This soured him to school in general.
In Willamette, the family started out in a house at 5th Avenue and 10th but eventually moved down to the bottom of 11th Street. Surrounded by wetlands inhabited by frogs, Ben remembers spending lots of time catching frogs and playing there. At night the wetlands came alive and the noise was deafening. The cacophony produced by the frogs in that very same wetland can still be heard during the summer every year.
In the early 40s, Ben recalls many neighbors working at the paper mill or PGE, others had local businesses. The town was full of mom and pop businesses serving the community. You could find every sort of service along the main street in Willamette: a grocery, pharmacy, soda fountain, barbershop, hardware, and a lumber and feed store. With the economic turnaround, Willamette thrived and business was good. Milliken and Buckles Hardware was located at the corner of 14th across from the Methodist church. They owned 1720 Willamette Falls Drive (what is now known as the General Store). It is one of the oldest structure on Willamette Falls Drive.
Ben Sr. eventually purchased 1720 Willamette Falls Drive from the hardware store owners in 1946 to start a cabinet shop. In order to prevent competition, Buckles and Milliken stipulated in the contract that the cabinet shop could not sell any nails. This agreement eventually dissolved as more and more customers came to the cabinet shop looking for nails, bolts and other cabinet supplies. The business grew selling cabinets as far off as Australia. The family moved into the store, living in one room on the ground floor until they completed an apartment above the store which is still there today.
Around the same time that Ben Sr. was setting up Willamette Cabinet and Builder’s Supply, Ben was attending West Linn High School. Not managing well in school, he told his father he wanted to quit and would go to work. His father made it clear that as long as he was living at home and not in school, he would be paying rent to the tune of $1 a day. Ben finally conceded when he owed his father $30 in rent. He went back to West Linn High and graduated in 1949.
Ben met his wife Betty in 1946 while working at an auction center in Clackamas. Ben was tall (and quite handsome from the pictures shared at the table). He caught the eye of the man who ran the auction and was offered a job to stand on a platform and show items for sale. One day while working, Ben pulled the next item out of the box (just grabbed it without seeing what he had) and held up a woman’s girdle. He turned around with the girdle and saw his cousin approaching with a girl (Betty). He remembers dropping the girdle like a hot potato.
Five years later they married and moved into an apartment in Willamette. The rent back then was $35 a month. Ben eventually went into business with his dad at Willamette Cabinet and Builder’s Supply. In the 60s the cabinet shop evolved into a True Value Hardware store and continued to grow. It was a cornerstone business for Willamette.
Their first home in West Linn was located at the base of the hillside where the White Oak Savannah Park and Salamo Road are located. Their neighbor was the Tannler Dairy. Ben remembers details about the dairy, “They paid $10,000, had 100 acres, and 100 cows.” Betty recalls their children crossing Willamette Falls Drive (a country road back then) and going up the old trolley stairs on their daily trek to Willamette Elementary.
In the late 60s the 205 highway was planned and the highway department came knocking on their door. After a brief explanation that the highway would be coming through their front yard, Ben and Betty sold the property and moved out to Stafford Road. In the next decade, Ben eventually took over the hardware store from his father and ran it until he retired in the early 1990s.
Ben and Betty
The West Linn Community
It is difficult to write something about the Fritchies without including all the work they did in the community. In 1956 Edna and Ben senior got involved in a community plan to start an old fashioned fair that would be held down at the park. Ben recalls his father had 15 dollars in his checking account when he wrote a check for $10 to help finance the first fair in 1957. They were involved in the fair for years and Ben junior has collected most of the programs and documents related to those early fair years. He followed his parents’ example in the community by continuing to help plan and run the West Linn Old Fashioned Fair.
Ben junior also was a long standing member of the Willamette Volunteer Firemen. The fire departments in West Linn were the backbone of the community back in the 50s and 60s. They helped plan and run recreational activities for the community in addition to fighting fires and responding to emergencies. And, they did this all for a volunteer stipend of 25 cents a month.
One day, many years after working as a teenager for the Clackamas auction center, the gentleman who hired Ben walked in to the hardware store. Ben marveled at the odds of this. The merchant looked around slowly and told him that he knew back when he had hired him at the auction center that Ben had something special, that he would “amount to something.” Ben cherished the compliment.
Even after sixty years of marriage, Betty finishes many of the stories that Ben starts. She tells the part of the story that Ben can’t tell because he is too close to it. She highlights the labor of love behind everything he did and how he could get things done. “What’s the big deal,” Ben said more than once, “we did what we had to do. We did what needed to be done.”