From Humble Beginnings

A brief history

If you don't have irrigation, you can't have beans. This agricultural truth was expressed recently by Leo Gaskill in describing the dilemma that Robert Lee Gheen found when he wanted to grow beans on his six-acre Willagillespie Road farm after moving to Eugene from California in 1931.

Gaskill, who was a neighbor, said that Gheen's property was not far from the slough that ran from Willagillespie to Country Club Road (near the present Valley River Center). Many farmers used the slough to irrigate their crops by flooding, but Gheen's farm was at too high an elevation for that.

The solution he found not only irrigated beans but also started a major Lane County business. The farm on Willagillespie Road is now the site of a factory that manufactures several million dollars worth of irrigation equipment for farms across the United States, Canada, and even farms in such exotic locales as China, Argentina, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia.

As the firm's current president, Robert Dale Gheen, suggests, the company started modestly serving farms in the Willamette Valley and grew to meet a worldwide need. Robert Dale Gheen is the grandson of the firm's founder.

Like most farmers in the area, the elder Gheen wanted to grow pole beans to sell to the cannery. To do this he needed a contract from the Eugene Fruit Growers, which required proof that he had land, power, and water.

Gheen had but two of those three. He needed irrigation pipe, but the steel pipe available then was expensive. Gheen found out about boiler pipe from old sawmills in the mountains around the Eugene and coastal areas. The mills were no longer in use, their steam boilers rusting away. These boilers could be bought for little money, but the buyers had to cut and haul the pipes themselves.

Frank Gaskill, a friend and neighbor, went along with Gheen and Gheen's son, Ernest, to haul the boiler pipes to Gheen's farm. "If you don't have anything to do, you might come with us," Gheen said to Gaskill.

"They had an old Hudson auto. They made a flatbed truck out of it that could also pull a trailer," said Leo Gaskill, Frank Gaskill's youngest son. "This old rig wasn't very dependable because it had single tires. It was easy to overload it."

To get the boiler tubes to a place where they could be loaded onto the old Hudson, they had to cut the shell into sections with four or six tubes. They made a sled, dragged the sections down the mountain, and then loaded them on the truck and trailer.

It was easiest to haul these boilers when it had snowed because they could pull the sled up the hill where the railroad had once traveled, Gaskill said. The men would park the truck as far up the road as they could and then walk the few miles to the old sawmill.

"The return trip could be difficult depending on the load weight and if the tires picked up sharp rocks on the road way," Leo Gaskill said. "It was not unusual to have many flat tires. It took a lot of patience. It took a lot of work"

Through their work as partners and neighbors, Gheen and Gaskill became close friends. They visited each other on weekends.

"Mr. Gheen always had his radio turned to a California station for frost warning," Leon Gaskill recalled. Leon, Leo's twin brother, worked for Gheen until his retirement in 1990. He also remembers hearing the Grand Ole Opry on the Gheen's radio. "Mrs. [Martha] Gheen played the piano, and she'd play the pieces that I wanted to hear."

After the men returned from the long trip of gathering the pipes, a lot of work remained before the tubes could be taken to the field to be laid as main lines. The tubes had to be cut off at the header plate with a cutting torch, then made ready for welding two or three tubes together.

Two-inch tubes from the smaller boilers were used for lateral lines, to which Rainbird sprinklers were attached.

Pipes provided a big advantage over flood irrigation. Gheen could irrigate his beans when he wanted, and he could provide precisely the right amount in contrast to the uncertainties of flood irrigation.

Gheen continued to think of ways to make his irrigation easier. To connect the pipes Gheen bought couplers. Gheen wanted an easier coupler than the one he had purchased, so he created one.

Neighboring farmers saw Gheen's pipe irrigation system and wanted one for their farms. Gheen sold his heavy pipe and replaced it with lighter pipe. He began to gather more pipes from the mountains, making and selling more irrigation systems to farmers.

"He was in business," Leo Gaskill said. In 1933 Gheen began making steel tubing and couplers. Gheen continued to farm his beans until after World War II. By that time his business was off the ground. Gheen worked in his factory until he retired at 80, He died seven years later in 1981.

Robert L. Gheen's son, Ernest, is now retired. But the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Robert Gheen continue to run Gheen Irrigation Works, Inc. The founder's grandson, Robert Dale Gheen, serves as president of the firm, which employs 85 people at its sprawling plant on the original farm along Willagillespie Road.

The beginnings of this multi-million-dollar establishment were humble, but the innovative Robert Lee Gheen found a more effective way to irrigate than the traditional methods of the era. "I always looked up to him," Leon Gaskill said. "He'd never cheat anyone. If he said something, he meant it."

Author Stephanie F. Rea, 15, is a sophomore home-schooler from Eugene who was tutored in writing by her grandfather, semi-retired editor and journalism professor Dean F. Rea. She is a great-granddaughter of Frank Gaskill, cited in the article.