My Great Grandfather who brought the family to Vashon in 1918 was alive until I was 10, the only story of his I remember is how we got the name Brenno, it seems in Norway the family had some land, there was a fire on the land and in Norwegian the word Brenne meant burn, and our name Brenno used that base word in the name to signify the family’s burnt land.
From early on in my life I have loved hearing my dad and his family tell stories about old Vashon. With the family being in the auto repair business for 60 years many of the stories included the statement, oh yah (fill in name) he used to drive 52 Ford, oh yah remember that time he…
When I was a kid my dad ran the Service Station, where unlike today we did give service, we cleaned your windows, checked your oil, even gave you presents to entice you to buy more. My Grandpa had the auto repair next door, as a pre teen it was always a cool dark mysterious place to hang out, and if you went into the back parts room the mechanics had Playboy bunny fold outs on the wall.
When my dad first gave me a job, not sweeping and little odd jobs, but at the pumps, he told me he would give me the same deal as his dad did him, 3 bucks an hour and all the gas I could steal ( gas was around .50 ). I thought that was a great deal and worked there all through High School.
Brenno’s Service was a great place to work for teens, right in the center of town, but more importantly right across the street from the Dairy Queen the center of the action. I had one problem, even though we had a “closed campus” at the High School a lot of the kids who drove would drive up to the DQ for lunch. With my dad right across the street I was not able to go hang out there during school hours, when I did I had to sneak around on the south side of the building.
With the gas crunch came big changes to the Service Station industry and my dad sold the properly and concentrated on the auto repair side. He had several beloved Island mechanics work for him including Harold Nash who was a VW whiz and did not like to be called an expert because he said” an ex is a has been and a spurt is a little drip.” Andy Mundy worked many years for dad and helped me put my Mustang back together after a reckless night.
My dad and his brother and sisters own the original piece of property my grandfather bought it has been in the family for 76 years at this writing.
After emigrating to America, Halvor and Betty Brenno, natives of Norway, followed the Alaska Gold Rush to Valdez Alaska in 1904 where they met Mr. K.J. Fields, who had a home on Vashon. The Brenno’s left Valdez and brought their three young children,Florence, Melvin, and Harold to Vashon in 1918, as Harold Brenno recalled, “when we got to Seattle it was so much different, all the large buildings, and the streetcars ran on a trestle along the steel plant to West Seattle, it was hard to believe. We took a boat to Vashon that landed at the Heights dock, we had to walk to the Field’s house it was a long walk.”
The family settled on the north end next to what is now Old Highway SW, Harold Brenno recalled, “my dad built the house it was around 1921, at the time Kaiser was paving the road from the Heights dock to Center, boy what an improvement, my brother Melvin and I would go play on the paving equipment when the workers were not there.”
Harold Brenno quit school two weeks into High School and went to work for Zarth’s’ Garage at Center.” We called it the peanut college, I learned more there than in school.” Harold said.
After Zarth’s Garage Harold worked at a succession of jobs, first as a fish counter for a cannery in Alaska, then for Manson Construction on a pile driver in Puget Sound, later he went back to Alaska where he worked in a ball mill, and finally for Puget Machine Depot building furnace tubes and tall smokestacks in Lynden and Sedro Wolly.
In February 1937 Brenno Service began when Harold Brenno bought Fred Stevenson’s’ Shell Station for $500.00, located north of the Presbyterian church, and the old Island theater.
In the early 1940’s Harold Brenno remodeled the service station with a grease room on the north side, and a repair shop in the rear. Harold Brenno took Louie Rodda as partner in 1946, they later split their business with Rodda running the shop and Brenno starting a parts store. Harold recalled, “we also had oxygen and acetylene tanks and a Presto Log business, we sold a lot of logs 10 cents a piece then. The oxygen business was good too, construction work and garages used it a lot.”
Together Harold Brenno and Lloyd Raab built a cement block fire wall between the remodeled Brenno Service and the Raab Auto Sales building, 120′ from the main road east to the ally behind. Brenno said ” It was 5′ feet over the roof lines, it was a big job cutting the roof and wood wall and replacing with cement blocks, we shared costs.”
Harold Brenno bought the Vashon Ferry District log cabin that was used for an office; located across the street from Brenno Service where Robinson furniture was later, then moved it across the street to his lot and rented out. He later sold the building to Carl Holert who moved it to Bank Road where Cunningham Building is in 2013, later it was moved further west on Bank Road were it stands decaying in 2013.
Harold Brenno had an early love of cars, remembering, “Melvin had a brand new 1929 Ford convertible and I had a 1928 Durant coupe a real class car, it was a girl catcher. That’s before I went crazy, I had 15 Pontiacs. I don’t know where I went wrong.”
Harold Brenno recalled, “we were the only tow truck for a while, we had AAA service for over 30 years, their rates were very low but ok. We had a lot of members on the Island, so it worked well.” Towing was a big part of Brenno’s Service for over 40 years.
“In 1946 we went to Fort Lewis and bought two Army trucks, they were quite messed up, Brenno said, with missing fenders and other parts, we had a lot of work to do, we finally made a good tow truck out of it. We also bought two Ford sedans, fixed them up and sold them.”
“In 1954 I became an International Dealer I sold 6 trucks and one big school bus the school had a bid on, and I bought a chassis for a new wrecker and a hoist, a nice unit. Also bought a ¾ ton new pickup and we had a parade all the trucks I sold and some I got from town 6 or 7 to show off, it was a nice parade.” Harold Brenno recalled.
Harold Brenno opened a brand new prefab Shell service station in 1955 on the old Island Theater lot. Realizing he could not run all of his businesses he leased the new station out for six years. In 1961 Harold Brenno’s son Bob Brenno took over the “new” Shell Station, and Harold continued his auto repair, towing and parts business next door.
Bob Brenno had grown up working in the family business and continued to build a loyal “old-time Islander” customer base over the years. Bob compiled a who’s who list of over 50 Vashon teenagers employed by Brenno’s Service. Bob Brenno became the master of the service call, getting cars running again in driveways, on the side of the road, and pulling cars from ditches at all hours of day and night. “It was points, plugs, and condensers and it should run, he says, now some little computer module goes out and the car won’t run.”
Bob took over Harold’s auto repair shop in 1970. Harold closed his Parts Dept remodeled it and rented it to Phil Schwartz Island Insurance.
Before the gas crunch of the 1970’s competition was fierce between the Island’s four stations with Brenno giving away bowls, knives, and other Shell gifts to attract customers. When the crunch hit, lines began to form and would stretch as long as a quarter of a mile so Brenno decided to institute an appointment system and fill each customer’s tanks. The chaos of those times convinced Brenno to concentrate on his repair service and 1976 he sold the Brenno’s Service Shell Station property.
BOB BRENNO’S EMPLOYEE LIST
George Brenno, Jim Williams, Bobby Lewis, Russ Plancich, Pat Kimmel, Stan Bokland, Larry Fuller, Wolly Rowkolwski, Tom Bell, Steve Bell, John Stockamp, Bobby Schmidt, Dave Williamson, Marty Larsen, Mik Guglamo, Gary Scott, Larry Eply, Louis Roggenbuck, Bruce Church, Tom Puz, Mike Shride, Bob Phanuf, Asa Shigley, Joe Smith, Duan Barden, Greg Curtin, Bob Murphy, Tom Murphy, Ken Turnbill, Paul Miller, Bob Miller, Scott Kellogg, Jim Kimmel, Dennis Roggenbuck, Warren Sandvig, Chris Olsen, Ole Olsen, Dan Densmore, Ralph Densmore, Hillary Grenville, Karen Brenno, Brian Brenno, Debbie Gallagher, Kevin Gallagher, Scott Coomes, CJ Casson, Rick Campbell, Mike Sechrist, Steve Duncan, Ed Rumberg, Harold Nash, Andy Mundy, Rich Richarson, Jim Lincouage, John Fedder, John Hibabrant
BEACHCOMBER ARTICLE 1987
A second half-century of auto service by Brenno’s begins in March.
Bob Brenno intends to continue fixing autos into the indefinite future as he has since he bought the business from his father in 1970. He and Jim will fix just about anything the same day you bring it in. “I hate to go home at night and see customers’ cars sitting around” Bob Brenno laughs. Keeping the fee reasonable is a tradition father Harold Brenno found worked best from the day he bought the company in February 1937. It stands almost the same now as then, behind Island Insurance Center.
” There were a lot of WPA paychecks in those days” Harold recalls. “People were poorer then, we used a lot of used parts.” Bob still doesn’t charge for little things like replacing wires that work themselves loose. Harold Brenno bought what is now Brenno’s Auto Repair from Fred Stevenson for $500. Later he bought more building and land from Lloyd Raab.
History of Service
To make a living on the Island back then you did anything that seemed appropriate. He and partner Louis Rodda ran an ambulance service two years after the county gave it up. They had the only auto tow truck on the Island: 24 hour service offered cheerfully. This led to enough income to open a new station in Vashon, Dec. 23, 1955, just south of where the original garage was. Son Bob Brenno pumped gas there beginning in his freshman year in high school. Bob went on for a teacher degree in college, worked for Nalley’s in Tacoma five years, and then returned to the Island to keep cars going.
” Experience helps now”, he explains his goal to get every repair done in a day. It helps save time. He installed the first hoist in the repair department, that saved time too, not having to crawl underneath dragging tools. Waiting only three hours for delivery of parts by the Island bus company help off set delay Harold notes. Parts now come by package delivery once a day. If the job is beyond the shops equipment or skills – front wheel alignment, automatic transmission repair, or radiator repair – Bob is quick to suggest someone suitably equipped. With so many people driving to and from work and getting gasoline at self-serve pumps, Bob doesn’t worry about running out of business, even though cars run longer now without problems
New rings or valve grinding used to be called for every 30,00 to 40,00 miles, recalls Harold. That was in the days of $1.50 fan belts, which now cost $8 and last longer. So do most other auto parts, except front brakes, starters, and wiring, says Harold. Bob closed the “new” service station during a gas war in the 1970’s when his profit margin was 1 cent more than when his father opened the station. meanwhile other costs like labor and electricity had risen. Bob decided to concentrate on auto repairs. Even though cars run longer without breaking down , Bob doesn’t worry about business drying up- not as long as people in a hurry use self-service and skimp on looking under the hood. Bob Brenno warns Islanders that letting autos run low on oil is the primary behavior that sends cars to him. Even modern autos need their oil changed and grease fittings lubricated, just as in Harold’s day.
BEACHCOMBER ARTICLE 1996
A two generations tradition of fueling, towing and repairing Vashon vehicles will be replaced this fall by art.
In 1937 Harold Brenno opened his automobile repair shop doing a brisk business. His son Bob Brenno, worked for his father from grade school. He bought his fathers service station in 1962 and took over his repair business in 1970.
Harold Brenno retired in 1971 and Bob Brenno closed the doors of his shop this spring. He will be helping his son open an artists gallery at the site of the repair shop.
Bob Brenno said he already misses seeing customers and old friends. He is also having a bit of trouble getting use to a more relaxed work week. “What I’ll miss most is having somewhere to go at 7 am in the morning,” he said. He also had a list of things he doesn’t miss, not having to pay a monthly payroll and weekly sales taxes is one relief. ” I’m also not going to miss some of these cars, he said.
Bob Brenno learned about cars as a teenager working at his dad’s gas station. “It was points plugs and condensers and it should run,’ said Brenno with a smile, ” now some little computer module goes to hell and the car won’t start. Cars began to become more and more complicated starting with pollution control devices in the 1970’s. They were followed by electronic fuel injection and ignition and then a variety of miniature computer systems.
Keeping up with the new technology required expensive new equipment and employees with specialized training. ‘ You had to be a rocket scientist to work on them,” he said. While the new technology makes then harder to repair, today’s vehicles do last a great deal longer. ” We used to think that after 80,000 miles a car was worn out,” he said. Now cars are running more than 150,000 miles. With better oils and metals being used by manufactures are saying cars can go 30,000 miles without an oil change. That’s as opposed to 1,000 miles when Brenno was a young lad.
Politics as well as technology has played a part in the three decades of Bob Brenno’s career. Brenno ran a 24 hour towing service for years but got tired of calls at 3am and increasingly restrictive King County regulations. He sold his gas station and concentrated on auto repair following the gas crunch of the 1970’s.
Before the crunch competition was fierce among the Island’s four stations with Brenno giving away bowls and knives to attract motorists. Wages were also rising while off Island competition meant that Island stations couldn’t raise prices without losing customers.
But when the crunch hit lines began to form early in the morning and would stretch as long as a quarter of a mile. Stations began to get limited allotments and people began hoarding gas by filling jerry cans and other containers. Island stations responded by rationing 8 gallons a vehicle.
Later Brenno decided that he would instead fill the tanks of people who made appointments. The chaos of those times convinced Brenno to concentrate on the repair business.
While the Brenno family is now out of the mechanic business the building that once housed the garage will stay in family hands brenno’s son Brian Brenno an accomplished glass artist plans to open a studio and gallery in the building.
In August Bob and Brian will begin to tear apart the building and install three glass furnaces, a work area, gallery, and a room where people can watch the glass being blown.