Jerry Wisher knows that many people driving by or living near the auto salvage business his father launched in 1957 consider the operation’s 22-acre lot an eyesore.
Yet he perceives through a different lens the sprawling salvage yard and the classic old cars and trucks that have come to rest through the years at Wisher’s Auto Recycling.
What does Wisher see?
“People helping people,” he said. “We can’t all be doctors and dentists. Somebody has to take care of these cars and get parts for people.”
The sprung hoods, the empty sockets that once housed headlights, the shredded roof liners and gutted upholstery cannot vanquish the beauty of vehicles manufactured when industrial design was an art form.
On a recent morning, frost affixed to hoods glittered like diamonds in the rising sun.
Many of the oldest vehicles rest in tidy rows in the salvage yard’s northwest corner. Pickups from the 1940s and 1950s, including Fords, Chevys and Dodges, provide mute evidence of the years when Detroit reigned supreme and solid steel and chrome encased drivers and passengers.
Each derelict pickup elicits speculation about its past. Did it haul crops? Bales of hay? Firewood? Loyal dogs? The carcass of a bull elk harvested on the cusp of Thanksgiving? All of the above and more?
Nearby, antique Cadillacs bristle with tail fins that could pierce the heart both figuratively and literally.
It’s also clear that Wisher encounters regularly across the lot the spirit of his late father and the business’ founder, Clem “C.P.” Wisher. He said he could not recall precisely the year his father died.
“Everything that ever happened that was bad I try not to remember it,” he said.
C.P. Wisher died in 1998.
His son, now 72 years old, recently decided to try to sell the property, partly because he is weary of developers complaining about the salvage yard’s proximity to new residential projects.
“When I put that sign out front I felt a thud in my heart,” Wisher said. “I’m pretty sure Dad didn’t think that was a good idea.”
The Wisher’s Auto Recycling salvage yard off Airport Road — and visible from the U.S. 93 bypass — hosts somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 vehicles. They range in age from the skeletal hulk of a 1929 Plymouth to late model cars and trucks.
Asked by a visitor whether he has any favorites on the lot, Wisher responded immediately.
“There are two. I’ll take you to them,” he said.
It seems C.P. Wisher lives on in each.
One is a 1948 Willy’s Jeep that C.P. Wisher drove to plow snow commercially around Kalispell during the 1960s. The jeep, which he’d purchased from the city of Kalispell, had no heater and no doors.
Wisher recalled the coveralls and hat with earflaps his father wore on the frigid mornings he pushed snow.
Once in a while, his son fires up the Jeep.
“I’ve had lots of chances to sell it,” Wisher said.
The other favorite is a 1953 Chevrolet pickup that C.P. had equipped with a power take-off and a dump bed that allowed him or his sons Jerry and Jim or cousin Ralph Wisher to deliver firewood with less labor.
“It would haul an exact cord of wood,” Wisher said. “ I keep it running. I make sure I drive it once or twice a year.”
The primary source of revenue for Wisher’s Auto Recycling is the sale of auto parts salvaged from vehicles in the yard. Occasionally, the business sells an antique vehicle that is more or less intact to someone who hopes to restore it. And every few years, Wisher’s hires a company out of Utah that hauls a portable crusher to the yard to transform cars and trucks into cash through scrap metal sales.
This fall, Wisher’s crushed about 540 vehicles.
And what will happen to the remaining inventory if the property finds a buyer?
“There’s some stuff I really wouldn’t want to crush,” Wisher said. “Some of it could be fixed up or used for parts.”
Wisher’s Auto Recycling continues to acquire vehicles, often five or more per day. Wisher sometimes spots prospects simply by driving around. He’ll see a vehicle clearly past its prime and stop and negotiate with its owner.
Wisher’s daughter, Sabrina, and his stepson, Shane Amundson, work with him at Wisher’s Auto Recycling. As does Leslie Jensen.
Amundson goes online when vehicle auctions occur to add to Wisher’s inventory.
Demand for parts can be fickle, fluctuating with which brands of cars and trucks are popular. Wisher said Subaru parts have sold well in recent years.
He said he has crushed vehicles he later wished were still on the lot for parts.
Wisher said his father advised him years ago not to fret about such things.
“He said, ‘Close your eyes. You’ve got to get rid of some of this stuff.’”
Wisher’s Auto Recycling, like many salvage yards, has had to cope through the years with theft and with youthful vandals who have entered the lot at night and smashed windshields and the like.
The company now has cameras that scan the yard and buildings.
Along with Jerry Wisher’s discerning eyes.
It’s clear he feels proud about the salvage yard’s comparatively orderly rows of vehicles. Two horses that belong to his daughters help keep the weeds down.
Many of the antique vehicles radiate a certain aesthetic appeal. A photographer once broke in just to capture images of the past.
Founder C.P. Wisher was a true jack-of-all-trades, Jerry Wisher said. He was, among other things, a logger, an excavator, a landscaper and stock-car racer. He was inducted years ago into the Northwest Montana Stock Car Racing Association Hall of Fame.
Jerry Wisher said his father’s education ended at the third grade. His admiration for C.P. Wisher seems as solid as the fender of the 1953 Chevy pickup he carefully tends.
He referenced the truck’s turquoise color.
“That’s the way Dad painted it up. I’ll leave it just like that.”
Visit online at www.wishersauto.com.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.