Don’s Fleet to close doors as of end of June
Business has been a Blue Earth mainstay 65 years, since 1956
A business which has served the farming community since 1956 will cease to be a part of the Blue Earth landscape when it closes its doors for the last time early this summer.
Don’s Fleet Supply has been around since 1956 when Don Christensen, who was looking for a career change, rented a building on Blue Earth’s Main Street and opened his store for business.
“It was located near the old Vienna Bakery somewhere close to where CCF Bank is now located,” Don’s son, Bill says. “The 1950s were when the fleet stores all got their start.”
Bill explains his father had been in the tire business before opening the store in Blue Earth.
“He was in Osage, Iowa, and talked to a man by the name of Earl Penny, who owned an auto parts distribution business, about getting a job,” Bill says. “Earl told my father he ought to look into these “fleet” stores. My dad drove through some towns and found a building available to rent in Blue Earth; that is how Don’s Fleet got its start.”
In 1961, Don moved the store to its current location on U.S. Highway 169.
“Dad leased the building on Highway 169 at first but purchased it later,” Bill recalls. “And we were originally only in the north half of the building; we did not purchase and move into the south half of the current store until 1972.”
Bill shares he began working at the store at the age of 15.
“I would work mostly during the summer months,” he notes. “It was good working for my dad, he didn’t give me any breaks. I studied business in college but I learned a lot from just working alongside my dad.”
The occasional visitor to the store may not realize just how big the operation really is if they never make it beyond the checkout counter.
“As you keep going east of the main store, we have a shop, a warehouse and a pole barn we use to store certain items,” Bill comments. “We have serviced chain saws and small engines for many years.”
Like any business, there have been many changes during the 65 years Don’s Fleet has been in operation.
“We used to sell car tires and front tractor tires,” Bill says. “We sold the Big-Mow lawn mower, which was really the first zero-turn lawn mower. Dad had an affinity for the lawn and garden part of the business and it was another way for us to grow.”
He talks about some of the other changes the store has seen over the years.
“We reset the shelving in 1993-94 to give the store a more modern look and update it,” Bill shares. “We used to sell more clothing and more tillage parts.”
And through the years he says Don’s Fleet did what they had to do in order to stay relevant.
“We knew we had to diversify so we became associated with True Value,” Bill remarks. “Later we switched to Hardware Hank which helped us grow in the hardware end of the operation. But farmers have always comprised the core of our business.”
The area around their current store has also changed.
“When we moved out here in the early 60s there was a Ford dealership directly to our south,” Bill recalls. “The Red Owl store and Anderson’s Pharmacy eventually moved out to what is now the Ag Center, but prior to that, there were not any other businesses out there.”
He shares it was near the end of March when news started leaking about the store closing.
“I had one customer tell me it was not a very funny April Fool’s joke,” Bill comments.
Surprisingly, Bill says two of the biggest questions being asked by people are not about the items they sell but about some of the services the store provides.
“We have been a United Parcel Service (UPS) drop off point for many years and people are wondering if someone will take over that service,” Bill says. “Another major concern is with welding gas. We do not own the tanks but have provided a place where customers can exchange their tanks.”
Bill knows change is a part of life.
“Farming in general has changed,” he says. “But I truly believe it has been for the better.”
Don’s Fleet has also provided many other unique services over the years.
“During the 70s when Interstate 90 was under construction, we were the only business around who did hydraulic hose repair,” Bill notes. “With all of the big equipment used in the construction of the road we were able to stay quite busy repairing hoses.”
Other customers have wondered about chain saw service and chain sharpening, which the store has provided for years. Don’s Fleet has also been the place to go when you needed to find an industrial grade V-belt for augers or other equipment.
Don’s Fleet has always been a family business. Don’s wife, Lucy, always had an active role in the operation, according to Bill. Likewise, Bill’s wife, Laurie, has had a big part in carrying on the family business.
Now, Bill and Laurie can think about other things.
“I want to do whatever I want and whatever my wife tells me I need to do,” Bill says smiling. “I still want to take some motorcycle trips and I have recently taken up fly fishing. I am looking forward to doing the spur-of- the-moment things I have not been able to do.”
But he knows things will be different once he is not spending his time at the store.
“One of the biggest things I will miss is the customers who walk through the front door,” he comments. “I will miss the interaction with the people. We have always strived to help our customers.”
Bill shares cell phones have helped in that regard.
“Husbands quite often send their wives or kids to town to get parts. The husband knows what he wants but the person after the parts may not,” he explains. “Cell phones enable us to help make sure the customer goes home with the right part.”
Now as the countdown to the June 30 closing proceeds, Bill shares some final thoughts.
“I really want to thank the customers and the community who have supported us through the years,” he says. “They are the ones who put the food on my family’s table.”