Collection of old cars along Interstate 94 draws looks, stirs memories – West Fargo Pioneer
This is a gathering, you think. A procession. If it’s early evening, you might think it was a dinner party, arriving or heading away. There must be a farmstead you can’t see. There must be a small gravel road.
If it’s very late, you might think something terrible has happened and there are men and women trying to figure it out by car-light.
The next morning, or several days later, you drive by again and discover there is no road. No farmstead. No party or problem. At highway speed you barely have time to see it, a field with some rusted cars, some rusted trucks, some stuff you can’t make out and a sign that says “Thanks” and a phone number. Thanks for what, you wonder, already past the site.
Then you drive by again some other night and those headlamps shine, as if the cars are running, as if the ghosts have gone cruising.
You think of Brigadoon. Perhaps you think of “Night Meeting.” You think of a thousand stories where the past comes back to life and then fades.
I think it’s beautiful. At night there is often a mist in that field and the headlamps glow. This is a spot I look for, always. At night, those headlamps make me smile. I know there is a story, but I don’t know what it is. Thanks, the old sign says. So I call the number.
Brent Hass meets me at the property. He lives in Fargo, hauls grain for a living, but he owns this land, too, a half-mile west of the Downer exit. He’s a collector at heart. His neighbors keep close watch when he’s away.
“I like old stuff,” he says, “and obviously you can’t keep this much stuff in your back yard in town. This stuff appeals to me.”
Smiling and friendly, he’s happy to show me around.
We pass a sedan rusting near a farm light on a pole. A 1938 Chevy, Brent says, from a friend at Titan Machinery in Fergus Falls. It would be perfect for film noir, I think. Perfect for a gangster film. Men in trenchcoats and Fedoras. Women with chromium hair.
“You have a story for every piece out here?” I ask.
“Pretty much,” he says. “People see these things, older guys, and floods of memories just hit them.”
Brent remembers where he got every piece.
“That I bought from a guy named Jim over by Kindred. I paid $500 for that. That might seem like a lot, but to me it’s a beautiful piece of history. I could just sit and stare at it for a long time. Think about the people who drove that around when they were young. They’ve since passed. They never knew what iPhones are or anything like that.”
We pull up to a yellow truck. “This truck here is a 1947 Schlitz beer truck,” he says with admiration. The faded logo is still visible on the side. “It’s a 1947, so think about this. World War II veterans drank beer from this truck. They were still young punks, like my son, in their 20s. They drank beer and told their stories right here.”
I ask him how long the collection has been up, how long he’s been making something beautiful.
“Maybe 15 years,” he says. “My son counted once and he said there were 70-some odd pieces.”
I ask about the sign.
“Initially, years ago, I was just trying to sell a car out here. It was a ’50 Pontiac. And it took about 10 years to sell. It had wide white-walls and it looked cool. Everybody seemed to like it. Now I need to change that sign, but I don’t really know what to. I don’t really want to start any sort of business out here yet. Maybe one day. I don’t think I’d be any competition for Bonanzaville.”
I tell him this is a sentimental site for me.
“It does seem to be a landmark,” he says.
We pass a 1958 sedan. “I probably get 10 to 15 calls a year on that, and look how far it is from the highway.”
Cars and trucks pass by on the Interstate. Brent says this is a dangerous stretch of road and he doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone getting hurt. So I ask why he puts the lights in, why he lets them shine at night.
“Because people love it,” he says. “It’s a beautiful landmark.”
With his phone number on the sign, he gets at least a half dozen phone calls a month. Sometimes a good many more.
“It draws a lot of emotion,” he says. “I didn’t expect that. I did it just because it looks cool. I’m not really an artist. I’m not really a picker, either. I’m kind of hopeful, though.”
I tell him he seems to be doing alright on both fronts.
“If people have stuff that’s made of metal, that’s pre-war, especially if it’s going to wind up in the scrap heap and get melted down,” he says, “I want it. I’ve saved some of these pieces from the crusher. I like to rescue stuff.”
Brent leaves me alone to wander as the sun sets and the headlamps come on. I linger at every car and truck, look inside, try to imagine the lives of the men and women who once rode inside. How many back seat kisses. How many vacations. How many mundane trips to work and then home. This is a field of echoes now — distant, old and alluring.
Before I leave, then, I indulge a small fantasy. There is an open spot in the line of cars, so I back my Jeep into it, line it up with the others, turn on the lights. My Jeep is only 14 years old, an embarrassing youth, but it’s too dark now for anyone on the highway to notice. Standing by the fence, I can hear cars coasting. I can see heads turn toward the lights. Perhaps they think of Brigadoon. Perhaps they just wonder. Why thanks and a phone number?
Back in my car, I wonder what the highway drivers think when they see one of the ghost cars move, pull out of line and amble away.