1926 Fred Kemppe could not have picked a worse time to launch his cherished dream
Fred was the oldest of three children. His parents, Isaac and Mary Kemppe were pioneer settlers on the Mendocino coast. He and his brothers received a good education from the General Electric Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and Schenectady, New York in electrical engineering. The year was 1926. The nation and the world were finally emerging from one of the longest and most devastating depression ever experienced. Fred could not have picked a worse time to launch his cherished dream, to own a hardware store; Especially when at the time there already were three well established hardware stores in Fort Bragg. He decided to take the risk anyway, and follow his dream.
Three years later, the stock market crashed and Fred’s situation (like so many others in town) became desperate, as he now had a family of four to consider. Salvation came in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp being built at Russian Gulch. Kemppe Hardware won the bid to do the electrical wiring, which kept the company in business.
1937 Fred & Irving learn about a liquid gas called Butane
By 1937 Fred’s son, Irving, had joined his father in running the store but both were having trouble producing enough revenue. A small company in Fresno invited Fred to a meeting in Sacramento to learn about a liquid gas called Butane. Fred came away from that meeting excited about the possibility of bringing this new fuel to the Mendocino Coast.
At that time, there were two major oil companies in town that sold butane bottles, but neither had bulk storage. All butane bottles had to be shipped back to the Bay Area for filling. Fred’s vision then became to build a storage depot where butane bottles could be filled.
Wood was the preferred source of fuel at that time. It was a cheap way to heat water, cook, and heat the home. But wood was messy and caused many chimney and house fires. At that time, butane could only be used for hot water heaters and it was very expensive.
Fred knew that butane would only be successful if it got into homes for cooking and heating. So, Fred and Irving came up with a plan. They started out with a small order of ten 20 gallon cylinders. Shortly thereafter, they bought a 1-1/2 ton Chevrolet truck and a 1,000 gallon butane skid tank from the Western Tank & Steel Company. Irving built a chassis for the truck and a heavy frame on skids to support the 1,000 gallon tank. Meanwhile, the tank was sitting on a truck at the dock of the Associated Oil Company waiting to be picked up, too full to transfer to the new truck (weighing 8,500 lbs). For a short time the tank and truck sat in Fred's backyard until he could agree on a rental fee for a lot, on Cedar Street. Once an agreement was reached, a carpenter went to work on building a storage unit for the cylinders. Then the tank and truck were brought over from Fred’s yard.
The next task was to figure out how they were going to transfer the 1,000 gallon tanks to their delivery truck. Fred and Irving figured that if they used two 8”x 8” x 10’ timbers and laid them across the tank skids, then place screw jacks on 3’ sections of a log, and raise the jacks, it would raise the skids enough to give trucks room to move from underneath. This is how they transferred tanks for many years. Safety engineers would have heart attacks if they witnessed this procedure, but, surprisingly there was never an accident.
Fred’s first storage tank was 500 gallons and was placed next to the cylinder shed. A line ran into the cylinder shed. That line hooked up to a hand pump which was used to fill the cylinders. The 1,000 gallon tank (that sat on the truck) was unloaded with a larger wing pump (by hand of course) and it took 8 gallons per minute to fill the 500 gallon storage tank.
Getting new customers was a very slow process. There wasn’t much money available to the working class for the switch to gas. The two oil companies in town belittled Kemppe Hardware and its new butane product. Stories about the dangers of butane were spread around town to scare people into not switching. The main reason behind there animosity was the difference in prices between Kemppe Hardware and the other two companies.
1939 We sign our first commercial account
During the years of 1938 and 1939 the business started to grow and the first commercial account was added, a 250 gallon tank at Pine Beach. The company had no means to pump and sell metered gas. The only alternative was to drive the truck and 1,000 gallon tank to the local weigh station, deliver to Pine Beach, return to the scales and get weighed again. As you can imagine this was not very efficient.
In late 1939, Fred purchased a GMC 1-ton truck to replace the first fuel truck. Irving fitted the truck with a 250 gallon tank and this time there was a small meter to measure the liquid.
1940 World War II
In 1940, war had started in Europe. Irving, now 22, was well aware he’d be caught in the draft so he chose to enlist with the Army Corps in September 27, 1940. He spent his five years in the Army working on airplanes in Alaska, Aleutian Islands, and Florida.
Sometime between 1941 and 1942, Kemppe Hardware Company moved from it’s location on Main Street to Redwood Avenue. The building was smaller with less shop room, but the rent was much less. With Irving away at war, Fred tried to keep the business running, but business became very bad. Propane tanks were unavailable to civilian businesses. Gas stoves were made of poor quality and without oven thermostats. Water heaters had poor controls and were made with cardboard tank covers. Space heaters made for natural gas had to be converted and were very hard to get. These shortages, plus scarce labor, and wartime price controls made it next to impossible for the business to grow and become prosperous. The only way Fred survived losing his business was with the help of a credit manager from Tay-Holbrook. He worked with Fred and helped save the company.
After Irving returned from the service in 1945, business began to pick up. Tanks were again available. Appliances, heaters and hot water heaters made of better quality were offered and four new employees were hired. By 1950, the Redwood Avenue store was getting crowded, so the store moved to Franklin Street. Kemppe Hardware was now selling Maytag washers, Magnavox TVs, radios and record players, as well as 33-45- RPM records. The extra room in the store was put to good use displaying the full line of Wedgwood gas stoves, water heaters, furnaces and other gas equipment.
1950 Climbing the Cloverdale seven mile grade at 7mph
Store locations weren’t the only changes in those years. The trucks had all been converted to propane. One of the first trucks purchased after the conversions was a GMC 6x6. The truck was part of a surplus of military equipment that had been shipped back to the U.S. for sale. The truck had a 360 cubic-inch engine and Fred and Irving thought it would make a suitable tractor. Since it was a military vehicle, the cab was pretty sparce. No heater, no defroster, no radio and no floor mats. Worst of all, it was slow. The top speed was 47mph. One memorable day, the cab temperature stayed above 120 degrees for over two hours. Climbing the Cloverdale seven mile grade at 7 mph wasn’t Irving’s idea of fun. The 16-17 hour round-trip soon proved that a faster vehicle had to be acquired.
Ford had just started its production of heavy duty trucks. Irving could hardly believe the power the V-8 had and how easily it handled its job. Things went well for several trips with the new truck. One evening, Irving had just reached the top of the grade at the Oaks on Hwy 128, when the engine blew a head gasket and had to be towed 63 miles, with the GMC truck. The same problem occurred again near Boonville, but this time Irving had tools and a spare head gasket, which he changed on the road. Then, at 20,000 miles, the rear end was found to be worn out. This was enough, and an International KBR8-1 was purchased in 1948. The truck ran well on propane and was now pulling a Fabco semi with four spheres, having a 5,660 gallon capacity. In 1950 one more transport trailer was purchased but it too had its own set of problems. Fred and Irving concluded that hauling their own fuel was no longer profitable and abandoned the idea.
In 1950, Fred managed to buy 2-1/2 acres of open land, three miles north of Fort Bragg. The most important asset was availability of three phase power. As soon as the lot was prepared, the two Cedar Street storage tanks (a 5,000 and a 10,000 gallon) were moved out of town, as was the cylinder shed. Power was brought in for the large compressor, used to load the delivery trucks.
1957 We install our largest tank ever, a 5,000 gallon tank at Heritage House
Over the next few years, at the Virgin Creek gas plant, a 32’x80’ steel Butler building was erected, a cylinder filling shed was constructed and in 1957, a 30,000 storage tank was added. The 5,000 gallon tank (which became too small as a storage tank) was installed at the Heritage House at Dark gulch. It was, and remains, the largest bulk tank installed for a single Kemgas (as it later was called) customer.
In 1961, Fred suffered a heat attack, and although he survived, he never fully recovered. On May 28th, 1966 Fred passed way in San Pedro and was brought back to Fort Bragg, to be laid to rest in the family plot.
During the five years after Fred’s heart attack, Irving became interested in the Western Liquid Gas Association of which Kemppe Hardware Company was a charter member. Irving was particularly concerned with the safety committee and served in the capacity for several years, long after Fred’s death.
During this period, Kemppe Hardware made a number of changes. The corporate became Kemppe Liquid Gas Corporation, Kemgas to the public. Maytag, Magnavox, pumps and records were dropped. Construction of an office at the gas plant was started and completed around the end of 1977, and the firm moved to its new quarters.
1977 Irving retires and leaving his oldest son Chuck in charge
Irving had served 40 years in the gas business and was ready to retire. Irving’s oldest son, Chuck had shown remarkable aptitude for the business and Irving felt confident he could handle the job as CEO. That confidence has been rewarded and Kemgas has prospered and grown beyond all expectations.
When Irving left for retirement there was not a single computer in the office, and now there are many, as well as meters in each delivery truck. Kemgas has a 40,000 gallon bulk plant in Pt. Arena for its South Coast customers and is now servicing the Sacramento area.
In 1999, Kemgas purchased a 10,000 gallon transport, powered by a 600-HP Caterpillar diesel Peterbilt tractor. Irving enjoyed a ride with the driver in the new rig and could hardly believe what he witnessed. The driver had trouble believing Irving’s stories of fifty years prior.
Pat and Irving moved to Maui and lived there for seven years and returned to California in 1984, when the pull of family became irresistible. They have lived in Santa Rosa for over thirteen years.
There have been numerous offers to buy Kemgas over the years, one over fifty years ago, but all have been turned down in favor of remaining independent and the master of our own destiny. We have seen what happens to small gas companies that have been swallowed by a huge conglomerate that knows little or nothing about running a successful propane business.
2012 With 70 years of Gas service history the future of Kemgas looks bright
The Kemppe name has been well known on the Mendocino coast having been engaged in several different businesses for over 110 years. Kemgas, with 70 years of gas service behind it, intends to move into the future with the same good service synonymous with the Kemgas name.
Chuck, the third generation Kemppe to head Kemgas, has every reason to be proud of his accomplishments. With his son Josh following, the future looks bright for an independent family owned hardware company that started out with only ten butane cylinders.
Thank you to all our customers who helped us along the way!