PASSING THE TORCH AT THE FRUITLAND SERVICE STORE

Kathy and Brian Benson in 1991, right after they bought the store.
Picture courtesy of the Bensons.

By David Lewis


“Passing of the torch,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “to give one’s job or duties to another person.” In the case of Brian and Kathy Benson, the time has come for them to pass the torch of their family legacy and Fruitland Service to new owners. It was not an easy decision for their family, but when Brian was diagnosed with Grade IV Glioblastoma (an aggressive form of brain cancer) in February 2021, they decided it was time.


The Benson Family


The Benson family store and service is located at the beginning of the Fruitland Valley on State Hwy 25. It is a place where you can get a spare bulb for your car headlight, a flat tire repaired, a book of stamps, a fishing or hunting license, a tank of gas, a little something for the dinner table or a quick snack for the road — and everything in between.


Kathy is a native of Fruitland. She was born and raised not far from the store. Brian’s family moved to Fruitland from Seattle when he was nine or ten years old. Brian and Kathy met at school in Hunters. They were boyfriend and girlfriend and shared a pet mouse. They took many rides on horseback on the banks of Lake Roosevelt.


After high school, they reconnected in college and rekindled their relationship. They were married in 1982 and this year is their 40th anniversary. The Benson’s home was built on property that was gifted to them by Kathy’s parents, Ellis and Lois Newbill. They still live in that home today. They have two children, Kristopher (1983) and Leah (1985), and four grandchildren.


On Nov. 1, 1991, the Bensons purchased the Fruitland store from Howard and Barbara Franklin. Barbara said that when the Newbill store (site of the Fruitland Winery) burned, it was so hot it made the paint on the back of the service station crinkle and peel. Howard was known to hang up a sign saying “gone fishing” and he would do just that. The Franklins were well known for their generous spirit, something Brian and Kathy have continued through their ownership of the service station the past 30-plus years.


The Bensons were also involved in many community projects over the years. Their support for Columbia School in Hunters was unwavering. They supported many of the activities at that school and were always the first to step up and support school levies and bond issues. They supported the effort financially and you could see ‘vote yes’ signs around the entire Fruitland area.


The children were an intricate part of the store over the years as well. They were instrumental in the opening of the Fruitland Valley Winery located just across the street. (Watch for news, information, and the story behind the winery in an upcoming issue).


The community events that revolved around the store were many. One of the most recent was during the Carpenter Road Fire that took place during August through October of 2015. The store was the focal point for the fire management teams and provided food, water, and rest to the many weary firefighters over that long three months. Brian and Kathy’s home was at the center of that firestorm.


Kathy said the night the fire started, their phone was ringing constantly from neighbors that were having to evacuate. They went and opened the store as folks from all around were devastated and very worried. They congregated at the store to get any info they could on the fire. Within a few days they received several phone calls offering donations. There were no churches or food banks in the area that could handle the volume that was coming in. So in Kathy’s own words, she and Brian said “bring it on.” Within less than a week, the service bays were filled to capacity. The community stepped up and came to help sort and assist with the distribution of food, water, sundries and all kinds of clothing. Fire crews came from all over the country. Even when the first fire crews showed up to buy a toothbrush, they were sent to the donation area, given a bag and told to take whatever they needed. The firefighters were very grateful. The Bensons were very happy to provide this service in times of need and stayed open as much as they could. Brian stayed at the house along with their son-in-law John who moved in with “Dad” to protect the home. Leah, Henry and Kathy lived in a motor home behind the station. “We could see the fire on the mountain all around the area we knew our house was located,” Kathy said.


Kathy wants to give special recognition to Leah Shuldheisz and Ginger Colvin for their social media organization and the countless hours they spent to keep the donations flowing. There were over 1,500 firefighters at the height of the 66,000 acre fire. They were stationed at the Fruitland Bible Camp. The fire brought the community together and made it stronger.


Even as their own home was in jeopardy, Brian and Kathy continued to be leaders with uplifting spirits and smiles that came with words of encouragement during this trying time. The Benson homestead did not burn, although the fire came within 100 yards of their home.


The following year, Kathy received a call from someone looking for a mushroom buyer. “What is that?” she wondered and was soon to find out. A year after a major fire, if the conditions are right, morel mushrooms grow in abundance. Within a very short time there were six buyers and 1,500 pickers all in the Fruitland area. It went on for several months. Many local residents took part in this phenomenon. At one point a five gallon bucket of mushrooms was worth $200. Kathy said they opened early and stayed open late to accommodate this different kind of army. They provided camping, trash removal and portable toilets to this huge influx of pickers. “Brian loved it all,” she said. “He became known as the “El Grande” campground host. The “Grande” part came from Brian being a big man with a big heart.” There were many different types of people and nationalities around the store. Kathy said they were fair with all of them and was proud to call them “friends.” The buyers said they had never seen so many mushrooms come out of one single area.


Brian is the visionary. He maintained a mechanics facility that was on the back side of the store. He provided a much needed service for small engines, boats and, of course, automobiles and trucks. Brian’s expertise in older farm vehicles was invaluable to many ranchers and farmers that wanted to keep that “1945 old Betsy” running forever. Many additions were made to the shop area. They added a car wash and a laundromat next to the store. He had equipment rentals for many large tractors and other machines. He contracted to plow snow in the winter. And his maintenance contract with Columbia School lasted 25 years. He was on call 24/7 to keep the school bus fleet running and in tip-top shape.


Brian’s knowledge of local people and places was incredible. It was rare when you asked him a question about anything in the local area that he could not answer. More surprisingly, he was always correct. Kathy was the bookkeeper and worked behind the scenes and kept the store running efficiently. She relishes her time with Brian and has often been heard referring to him as “the love of my life.” She always made sure that Brian’s next vision was within the constraints of the family budget. He was sometimes disappointed when the answer from Kathy was “no.” He would smile and respond, “okay, next year.”

New Owners of Fruitland Service: The Allen Family – Kelly and Theresa Allen,
and their three children (daughter Riley, 15, son Landon, 13, and son William, 10)


The New Owners


The new owners of Fruitland Valley Store are Kelly and Theresa Allen, who have been married for 18 years this May. Kelly grew up in Stevens County and joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Eastern Washington University.


Theresa grew up in northern Kentucky. Kelly and Theresa met while Kelly was going through flight school in Pensacola, FL. Theresa was working on her degree and running cross-country for the University of Western Florida. The Allens have three children (daughter Riley, 15, son Landon, 13, and son William, 10). They have been a licensed foster family for four years. They currently have an 11-month-old son who will hopefully join them in Fruitland this summer.


Following are the questions posed to the Allen family:


What brings you to the area?


A: After seeing Kelly’s parent’s property, (Pat and Sonya Allen) we instantly fell in love with the area and bought land with the intention of building and retiring on the property one day. Kelly has been a pilot in the Marine Corps and is currently the Commanding Officer of a helicopter squadron in Hawaii. After 21 years of service, five deployments, two wars, and ten moves, we have decided to plant roots here in Fruitland. Now, after serving our country, we have chosen to serve our local community.


What led to the decision to buy Fruitland Service?


A: Once Kelly decided to retire, we knew we wanted to call Fruitland, WA home. When we saw that Fruitland Service was available for sale, we contacted the Bensons. We understand that the Bensons have been pillars of service and support in the community for years and wanted to continue the great legacy that they have started. We know that many people rely on the store’s services and do not want to see that service fail in any way. The Benson Family has been fantastic to us, and we are appreciative of their support and openness to allow us to continue serving the community.


What is your vision of the future?


A: First, we look forward to getting to know the community and identifying the needs of the future while maintaining the quality services the community has come to expect from this business and its owners. We have ideas to enhance services but want to ensure additional services are wanted and needed. Our desire is for everyone who walks into the store to feel welcome and appreciated, and we look forward to getting to know all of you. We will continue that local community service. It is essential, and we will provide the highest quality service to everyone.
So when driving by the store, stop in and introduce yourself to the newest members of our community. We wish the family well in their new adventure as they receive the torch!


History of Fruitland


Sterling Price was the first settler in Fruitland Valley. In the early 1880s he built a cabin to hold the land for his sons and their families. For a few years it was known as Price’s valley. During the first years of the settlement, residents had to travel to Hunters or Davenport to get groceries, supplies and mail. Moses C. Peltier settled in the valley in 1886. He thought it looked like the type of soil that would grow good fruit and so named the community Fruitland.


He built a store and opened a post office. Not long after, Edward Sullivan came to town. He built a large store and hotel with living quarters in the back of the store. In 1895, an organizational meeting was held in a little log schoolhouse on the Steele Farm. This meeting resulted in the construction of the Seventh-Day Adventist church, the first protestant church in the Fruitland area. The little church has been opened and closed over the years but stands empty today.


With an abundance of large trees, several mills were operational in the area. As more and more land was cleared, pasture land became abundant and beef and dairy cattle herds began to spring up throughout the valley. As folks moved to the area and Spokane continued to grow, there was a greater demand for dairy products and beef.


But milking cows by hand was time consuming and labor intensive. Those who are experienced say you can get up to three gallons of milk in about 10-12 minutes (depending on the size of the cow). And if the cow is not nursing, it must be milked at least two or three times a day so that she will keep producing. It was hard work and not very profitable when you had maybe five cows.


But automation soon came to Fruitland Valley in the 1930s. Sears and Roebuck Company was one of the early supply companies that published mail order catalogs that allowed folks to order needed goods, clothing, farm machines and buildings, rather than go to a big town to procure needed items. The first catalog was published in 1888 and was 80 pages long.


One such building offered was a milking parlor. The parlors greatly improved the productivity of milking time and is an adaptation that still continues to be utilized and developed on dairy operations to the present day. It had cement floors, electric lights and milking machines that decreased the time needed to milk several cows. As a result, farmers were able to add more cows for increased profits. The Fruitland valley had at least four of these parlors. Long time residents, Gene and Marlene Kennedy said that one complete parlor building kit was $1,500. The pictures show the remnant of one such parlor.


By being able to milk several cows at once, more product was available to be taken to the local creameries. They were paid almost immediately. The creameries then sold to Darigold and other milk processing facilities in Spokane and they in turn received quick payment. With this modernization, dairy herds grew and families became more prosperous.


The date that the Fruitland Service was built is still in question. Kathy Benson says there are indications that it was built in 1926 after a fire destroyed a hotel at that same location. A longtime resident of the area, Bud Sampson (85), says he remembers being told about an incident at the store in 1937. It was a tragic traffic accident that resulted in a fatality. Other lifelong community members recount past descendants saying the station was there when they were children in the early 1930s.


The population of Fruitland has varied greatly over the years and in 2020 was 864. So the “Passing of the Torch” goes on as new folks arrive looking for fresh air and a new adventure. Others sell and move on to their next adventure. Others remain and continue living their adventure.
If you have time, when passing by the store, turn east and take a drive up the Fruitland Valley Road. The scenery is beautiful. It will be time well spent where there are wide open spaces and history is still being made as the Torch is still being passed

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Fruitland, WA – Elevation 1,824 ft – Population 812