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Empire Falters 

Old Charlie Hansen's truck stop might close as the future zooms past

That last day, the old man arose at 5:30 in the morning, same as he always did, got into his old white Ford pickup and drove from the big farmhouse down the road to the ranch to feed the cows, then headed the short distance over to Hansen's Truck Stop. He went inside the warm cafe and sat in one of the reddish shiny vinyl stools swinging in a row before the bright yellow counter. The waitress poured his coffee, and the old man dumped his usual outrageous load of sugar into the cup. His bacon and eggs arrived. As he ate, the old man chatted with a retired logger friend.

His friend left. The old man finished his coffee and stuck the toothpick in his mouth. His chin dropped to his chest. And that's how the waitress found him when next she turned around to check on him.

Old man Charlie Hansen, a few weeks shy of his 95th birthday, was gone. Oh, he lingered on six or seven days more at Redwood Memorial Hospital, in a peaceful coma brought on by the stroke he'd suffered at the cafe. Family dropped by his room to murmur their goodbyes, and they even brought his sweet dog Hannah in to visit him. Then, on Dec. 11, 2009, it was over.

Maybe Caltrans thought it was over, too -- the trouble with Charlie Hansen. For 60 years, Hansen had warred with the state highway department over access between Highway 101 and his property just north of the highway's intersection with State Route 36. The latest court case was still plodding along as Hansen drifted away in the hospital: a suit filed by Caltrans on Dec. 5, 2007, to seize by eminent domain nearly two acres of Hansen's land to build the new Alton overpass. Hanson objected, and the state put up a $429,000 deposit for the "probable compensation" for what the taking would cost him, which included the loss of the land plus one of the gas station service islands. Hansen eventually took $400,000 of the deposit, but said it'd take a lot more than that to make up for his loss of access and business goodwill.

Trial dates were set and abandoned. Ten months before Hansen died, according to court documents, the state made a final offer of compensation of $784,000. Hansen countered with a demand for $5 million. And after he died, it definitely wasn't over. Charlie Hansen was a fighter, and he'd raised his kids to be that way too. The eminent domain case, and a new lawsuit the family filed against Caltrans after Charlie died, carry on to this day, with trial dates now looming sometime in early 2011.

Even so, things aren't boding well for Hansen's Truck Stop. These might actually be the last days of at least the homey roadstop part of the Hansen family empire, down there on its scruffy patch of dirt south of Fortuna.

 

On the floor of the darkly skylit, cavernous wire rope workshop that Charlie Hansen, Sr. built, near the open main entryway, his 55-year-old son, Charles Hansen, Jr. -- "Chas" -- leaned over a small cylindrical stove and stirred a pool of shiny molten metal in the kettle-like top. It was a mild, post-rainstorm Friday in early November. Out in the scrap yard -- a sprawling operation in the long dirt stretch between the wire rope shop and Hansen's Truck Stop -- a screechy tractor maneuvered among large puddles that reflected montages of sky, rusty bins and tanks, eucalyptus trees, old engines and other hunks of discarded metal.

Chas crouched low and adjusted the flame shooting from a gas line propped underneath the stove, then stood back up. His thick-bellied frame was dressed in the ubiquitous, dirt-smeared working man's outfit: brown leather work boots, blue jeans, blue-and-white striped Ben Davis shirt with the half zip in front. Just like his big brother Hans dresses. Just like their dad, Charlie, wore.

"The old man, he was an ornery old fart," Chas said, with a huff of a laugh. "But he was a hard worker, and he made us kids work ever since we were little."

Charles Hansen, Sr., who was born in Rio Dell and came of age during the Depression with seven hungry siblings, started the wire rope business back in 1949, after learning the trade at Brizzard Mathews Machinery. He first set it up in an old chicken house on the homestead that he bought in Alton in 1937. Later he built this shop. It was a successful enterprise: He had invented, and patented, a way to re-core hemp-filled wire rope with a steel core, and loggers swore the steel-cored cables were 30 percent stronger than fiber-cored ones. He brought his boys up in the family business. He and Russell, his stepson and the eldest child, had a falling out when Russell was in his 20s. His second eldest, son Hans, was up on a Ford farm tractor from the time he was 5, dragging wire rope around the yard, and has had his own wire rope business in Willow Creek these past 40 years. Chas, nine years younger than Hans, started dragging rope when he was about 7, and he bought his dad's wire rope business in 1986 and still runs it.

But the wire rope shop was just the beginning. Charlie and his wife, Imogene, kept accumulating land and projects, adding on the next-door Humboldt Drive-In Theatre in 1959, a cattle ranch, a sand and gravel operation on the nearby Eel River, and the scrap iron business. And when the drive-in blew down in 1977, Charlie remodeled it into a cafe. In 1988, he added fuel pumps and made it a truck stop.

Three golden-eyed, whippish red-and-white dogs, McNab shepherds, whirled into the yard outside the shop, the mother dog, Hannah, nipping and barking at her two tussling grown offspring. Chas checked the melting metal again -- he was getting ready to pour boom pendants -- then walked to the door jam and leaned on it, looking out.

"See this yard?" said Chas. He swept his hand in front of him -- past the scrap yard, north to the fuel station, cafe, office and bathrooms with their $2 showers -- until it was pointing at the new cyclone fence, installed this summer, that runs along the border between a realigned Sandy Prairie Road and the new offramp for the freeway. "It used to go clear out to the highway."

There also used to be a wide opening from the highway onto Sandy Prairie Road where it runs parallel to the Hansen property, and another smaller highway opening directly onto Hansen Lane. And there were highway entry and exit lanes to get you to the big opening and hence to Hansen's. Those openings, along with one at Drake Hill Road (much to some residents' disgruntlement) to the north, were closed off to build the new Alton interchange's overpass and exit- an on-ramps. Now, to get to Hansen's, drivers have to make more than a mile roundtrip via the new interchange -- and northbound traffic can't see that Hansen's is even there until they've driven under the overpass and missed the exit.

"You used to be able to just whip in here, get in and get out," Chas said. "They could have left us a southbound access. The safety issue is the cross traffic, if you're pulling out to go north. You could get T-boned trying to cross over. But if we could've just kept our southbound access here, the business could've survived."

Charlie Hansen, Sr.'s suggestion that Caltrans at least build a frontage extending Sandy Prairie Road to Fortuna likewise went nowhere.

After his dad died, Chas, as successor trustee of the Hansen family trust and president of the Hansen's Truck Stop corporation, took over the eminent domain fight. He, the trust, and his twin sister, Charlene, are now named as the defendants.

In addition, in March, following up on a complaint his dad had started, Chas filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Caltrans, claiming that when it began construction on the new interchange in May 2009, it broke a 23-year-old court-ordered agreement with his dad.

 

In 1950, when Caltrans built a new highway through Alton, it also closed and fenced off a lane Charlie Hansen, Sr. had used to haul wire rope from one piece of property to another by forklift. Hansen cut the fence down. More than once.

"And they arrested him a few times for it," recalled his 64-year-old son, Hans, by phone from Willow Creek recently. "I remember one time the constable came out -- of course, everyone knew one another -- and they hauled him away. I was about 8. He had to bail out. And he sued them for malicious arrest."

As Hansen's holdings grew, so did his fight with Caltrans, taking in disputes over deeds and highway access rights. Hans said his dad wanted to build a truck stop. But he needed good access. He was so worked up about it, he even ran for county supervisor in the 1980s to highlight the battle (he lost, much to his relief).

Eventually, in 1984, Caltrans sued Hansen, saying he had no direct access to the highway. Hansen insisted he had abutter's rights. They settled, and in 1986 the agreement was court-enforced: Hansen had to relinquish his claims to abutter's rights; Caltrans, meanwhile, had to maintain a 25-foot opening onto Highway 101 at Hansen Lane, and a 100-foot opening onto Highway 101 along Sandy Prairie Road, both spots where Hansen's property accessed the highway. Caltrans also had to maintain acceleration and deceleration lanes for traffic to use the larger opening.

"That great big opening there, and the acceleration lanes and deceleration lanes, that's what really made the truck stop get up and go," said Hans. "Well, and that's the crux of what our big lawsuit is about. They breached our contract for this opening we were supposed to have. It's basically almost put us out of business now."

Caltrans, in court documents, says the agreement granted Hansen rights to Sandy Prairie Road -- not to the highway. (Note: Attorneys for both the Hansens and Caltrans declined to comment on pending litigation).

The breach-of-contract lawsuit claimed damages in excess of $5 million: the cost to acquire land more conveniently located, if possible, by the interchange, and to relocate the truck stop and restaurant and associated businesses.

In the eminent domain case, also, the Hansens asked for $5 million in compensation -- for loss of the land, loss of the access openings and loss of business goodwill.

Hans said at first the state hadn't offered anything -- not until his dad got a lawyer. And then, said Hans, the state offered to put up a big sign for northbound traffic, plus maybe $400,000; the old man refused the offer.

"The two acres alone [taken by eminent domain] is worth a lot more than what they were offering," he said. "But the opening is what we're really fighting for."

Since construction, fuel sales and restaurant sales have dropped dramatically, the Hansens say. Trucking had already been in a tailspin since the decline in logging, and the recent general economic decline. But trucks aren't the problem -- most truckers know the truck stop is there, and find it, said Hans. The problem, the family claims, is that the new interchange has hindered its ability to draw new car customers.

Caltrans, in court documents, counters that. It says Hansen himself did very little to attract new patronage. It says he offered cardlock accounts to businesses so they could fill up at the diesel pumps after hours, but only 15 people had an account. The rest of the customers, which would include new ones, had to pay cash and could only fill up during business hours. The cafe likewise only took cash. The bathrooms were old, the grounds unlandscaped.

Hans acknowledged that the place needs to be modernized. But he said his dad had been planning on doing that. He'd planned to build a new restaurant and truck stop.

 

The truck stop cafe is pretty bland on the outside, and the bathrooms with their $2 showers are rusty and bleak. But it's the kind of place where, once you know about it, it seems natural to become a regular. The burgers and chicken fried steak come from Hansen cattle, raised in the nearby pasture. The soups are homemade. And beyond the plain exterior lies a time machine's treasure of diner warmth and color: Redwood-toned vinyl booths abut bright yellow tabletops, and the stools and counter match. Brown tables and chairs sit in the middle. On one entire wall, beneath high triangular windows set in knotty pine, someone named Kealamakia, Jr., in 1984 painted a double-trailered logging truck stuffed with fat logs. The requisite redwood burl clock hangs above the soda machine behind the counter. Other walls hold large black-and-white photographs of old Humboldt logging days and assorted memorabilia. On the painted cinderblock wall by the kitchen, next to a $5 bill from Australia featuring Queen Elizabeth II, is tacked a newspaper clipping of a letter to the editor titled "Dedicate new interchange to Charles Hansen," written after the county board of supervisors decided to dedicate the new interchange to the late supervisor Roger Rodoni, who'd pushed for it. And amid the Alka Seltzer and York candies on a shelf behind the counter was a portrait of Charlie Hansen, Sr., with two angel figurines in front of it.

On this midday Friday in November, Charlene Hansen Primofiore was finishing up the morning shift, pouring a couple of bowls of clam chowder for regulars Richard and Eleanor Sweet. Bright silver hoops hung below her short, reddish-brown hair, and she wore a purple-and-blue blouse under her light blue apron. Charlene manages the cafe side of the Hansen family empire. And she works there every Friday -- because she enjoys it, she said. The rest of the week she works as a registered dental assistant in Fortuna.

She remembers working here when the place was a drive-in.

"We were probably 5 or 6 years old when we started working," she said. "We had to pick up the garbage after the movies. In the 6th grade I started working in the snack bar. Charles had to do that too, and he had to do speakers and splice the film and run the projectors. The film would come in on Fridays in these big metal things."

Hans ran the projectors before Chas took over -- on weekends, after a week of school and eight-hour shifts into the night in the wire rope shop. On Friday afternoons, after school got out but before the first moviegoers arrived, the kids had to pick up sheep droppings -- their dad turned the sheep loose on Thursdays to mow the grass.

Charlene refilled the Sweets' coffee cups. A woman came in and bought a coffee to go for a dollar. Another woman came in, sat at the counter and took out her knitting. The Sweets finished their soup. They've been coming here 15 years, they said -- pretty much since Eleanor, 80, retired from the bank in Scotia and Richard, 79, retired from Pacific Lumber Co.

"It's kind of a fixture for us," said Richard.

"Everybody's friendly and the food is good," said Eleanor. "They have a great cook -- Mike."

"And we know everybody here, too," said Richard.

"A lot of the loggers and truckers," said Eleanor.

Richard Slater, a 55-year-old trucker from Arizona, sat a couple of booths over, eating a chili cheeseburger. He's crisscrossed the country for 25 years, listening to Outlaw Country in the day, heavy metal or alt-rock at night, delivering wild goats from Texas to New Jersey, cattle from Pennsylvania to the Midwest, pigs from Iowa to California, and dairy cows from the Eel River Valley to Oregon. And he said there aren't many truck stops like Hansen's anymore. He comes through here several times a month, he said, to meet his dairy cow buyer.

"This truck stop's good," he said. "A one-stop shop: You've got fuel, a restaurant. Got a good place to park. Food's good. And it's close to where we load, so it's convenient. I wish there was more places like it still left in the country -- a mom-and-pop shop. Big truck stops have taken over."

He said the new interchange wasn't a big deal. "It's better," he said. "Safer."

Charlene's shift ended, and she sat down with her 25-year-old daughter, Natalie, who lives in Fortuna and was visiting with her infant, Alexa, and husband, Josh. Then they headed over to the office next door, where they reminisced with the bookkeepers about Charlie's demands for "sweet air" (air freshener) in the office, and other such quirks.

For years, Charlie had worked on a recording of himself pointing at maps and documents, talking, detailing every step of his fight with the government. First it was on VHS, then CD -- and, frankly, some copies are a bit rough in quality, and it's hard to hear everything he says.

"That was my dad's most important thing, that CD," said Charlene. "It was everything to him. He sent copies off to everyone."

"He wrote to the Governor, he wrote to the President," said Nancy Bush, one of the bookkeepers.

"It was his life," said Charlene.

Chas came in, told the bookkeepers he was going to get the mail. He left. He came back -- he'd lost the mailbox key. Charlene and Natalie made eyes at each other. After he left again, Charlene said she didn't like some of the decisions Chas was making. Earlier, in the wire rope shop, Chas had detailed some of his grievances with Charlene. They did not get along.

Natalie said she had been close to her grandpa Charlie, even though he hadn't been a particularly warm or loving man. He was more of the provider-type. And he always had time for you if you really needed him. "I used to like riding around with him when he visited his cows," she said. "Because cows were like his best friends."

"That and Caltrans," said Charlene.

Like her mom before her, Natalie grew up in the family businesses. She worked in the gas station from age 7 to 21, weighing trucks and handling customers, which she loved. And she waitressed and washed dishes in the cafe, which she did not like so much. Now she's a dispatcher with the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. Charlene said she encouraged her kids to avoid depending on the family business; she didn't want her kids to be under the family thumb.

"My dad wanted me to be a bookkeeper and work for the family," Charlene said. "He kind of had a control thing, you know. His era, it was old-school -- you know, you have the whole family working in the business. But I went into dental school right after high school and went to work right away in that."

Best thing she ever did. And yet she certainly didn't want the truck stop to close.

 

In his will, Charlie left Chas in charge; so he has to make the final decision. At the wire rope shop earlier that day, he and his wife, Dianne, had talked about it.

"Last year, we spent $235,000 in lawyer's fees and appraisers," Chas said. "That's why we're going to jury trial. I think they're just trying to break us."

Dianne said the family's accountant had told the sibling heirs just the day before that the truck stop had been losing $10,000 a month for the past six months. The accountant recommended they close the gas station and restaurant by the end of the year.

"And we're not sure the business will make it that long," said Dianne.

"If it gets to the point where we can't pay our bills, well..., " Chas began, then paused. Then he said, "My dad was always old-school. Man, you paid your bills. That's the way he was raised."

The family members should be fine, if the truck stop closes. Chas and Hans have their shops. Charlene has her career. But they worry about the 24 other employees.

"We've got a really good crew here," said Chas. "Really good. It just makes me sad to think I might have to lay them off."

Later, back in the cafe, afternoon waned. The biggest booth, in the corner, had filled up with members of the local Renner family, and one of them split off from the group to go chat with a man at the counter.

If nothing else, the cafe seemed to be strong on regulars. And if old man Charlie Hansen, Sr. were still alive, he'd be coming over soon to join the "smart table" -- that's what he called the bunch who meet here every day at 4 p.m. to shoot the bull.

Some of them probably would tell him he should have taken the money back when Caltrans was offering some. Others would share his misery over the government and spur him on. Hannah, the McNab shepherd, would be lying outside the door waiting for him. And, no doubt, he'd be plotting victory on that future day in court.

For Charlie, that victory likely would have meant more than simply the financial justice he felt he deserved, and a means to preserve a fine operation. It would have underscored the importance of something a man of his time easily spent his whole life fighting for: the family empire. He gave his children not only his businesses, but a strong work ethic and a (complicated) love of family. No doubt they would share many of the same feelings as he, in the event of victory. But Charlie, his crazed struggles with the government and the truck stop itself are of one era; his children, like most of us, are of another. These days, the common thing is just to watch the traffic pass by.

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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