To understand the story behind Oak Street Tank & Steel, you have to go back to the beginning of time (well, Ashland time, anyway).
In the year 1852, Abel Helman and Eber Emery were the first settlers to claim land along Ashland Creek. Emery hosted Ashland’s first school classes in his home. Keep an eye out for his name later in this article.
Fast-forward 60 years. In 1912, the business now called Oak Street Tank & Steel began life as the Park Garage, founded by Sim Morris. In the 1915 Park Garage photo, Sim Morris is the man on the right wearing a tall hat.
If you had wanted to find Sim at the Park Garage in 1915, you would have walked across the street from the newly developed Lithia Park, which had its grand opening in 1916.
In 1925, Sim Morris and his son Harry moved the business to a brand new building at 101 Oak St. First called Oak Street Garage, it later became Oak Street Tank & Steel (aka Oak Street Tank), a name they have kept through two additional moves.
At 101 Oak St., the business expanded beyond auto repair to include a blacksmith and machine shop. It finally found its niche in 1938 when it started making steel tanks, which it now has been doing for 80 years.
In 1945, the Morrises needed more room for their growing tank business, so Harry moved Oak Street Tank a short distance to a block-long building at the corner of A and Oak streets.
Harry Morris married the great-granddaughter of Ashland founder Eber Emery. Harry’s son Gene Morris started welding at the company when he was 13 years old and later ran the company for decades. Gene’s son Jim Morris and his daughter Chris Decker now manage Oak Street Tank. That makes Chris’ son Nick, who works in the business, the fifth-generation family member to work at Oak Street Tank & Steel. Plus he’s a sixth-generation Ashlander.
The current home of Oak Street Tank & Steel is on Jefferson Avenue, part of a small industrial area in southern Ashland.
Fascinating fact: Oak Street Tank is the third oldest business in Ashland, after the Ashland Daily Tidings (since 1876) and the Ashland Greenhouse (since 1906).
Oak Street Tank stayed in business by adapting to the times. It made many products through the years in addition to tanks: aluminum-hulled boats, “wigwam” burners for local lumber mills, steam cleaners, steel boxes for parking meter coin collection, even bomb shelters.
Yes even bomb shelters.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cave Junction resident Art Robinson exhibited at state and county fairs, where he found a market of “preppers” who wanted to purchase bomb shelters. He contracted with Oak Street Tank to make the shelters for him. Gene Morris’ daughter Sharon estimated about 50 were made for Art, both a basic 8-by-15-foot size and a larger 9-by-24.
As company office manager Chris (Morris) Decker was showing me some company historical documents, one brochure (date unknown) jumped out at me. The “Sunmate” is described in the brochure as “The First Aluminum Surf-Paddleboard in America.” Part of the description says: “For added sport — use a sail.” Yes, the Oak Street Tank surf-paddleboard could even be used for windsurfing.
Modern windsurfing was invented in the 1960s and took off in the 1980s, when it became an Olympic sport for the first time in 1984. The brochure states that Oak Street Tank has been building aluminum watercraft since 1937. Could this old-fashioned steel tank company in Ashland have been a pioneer in both windsurfing and SUP (stand up paddleboard)?
How many more years, and how many more generations, can Oak Street Tank stay in business? Based on its history, I think we would have to live a long, long time to find out.
As his contribution to building community, writer and herbal health researcher Peter Finkle is walking every street in Ashland and writing an article with photos about each one. Visit WalkAshland.com to see and read about local people, history, yard art, architecture, gardens and more.