Everyone knows Delbert Hodgson. The Riverside Service owner and operator, who sold the station and the Ram Drive In and retired at the end of August, has been greeting Newport Highway travelers, Riverside community residents, friends, family, dogs, cats, deer, elk and low flying birds with his familiar, drawling, “so, what’s new?” for nearly 50 years.
“He was the pulse of the community,” said Ram operator Scott Robison. “He was one of those rare, small town, hometown guys that always took care of people.”
“He’s just a real straightforward, old-fashioned guy,” said Michelle Moran, who owned a dairy farm with her husband. “He had no pretense; what you see is what you get.”
When Hodgson picked up the phone and said, “Riverside Service,” he meant it. His service station was a living fossil, still providing the kind of personal care most filling stations abandoned decades ago. “If you parked at the pumps out front, your windows would be washed … by an actual attendant,” Moran said. “You could ask to have your tire repaired, or your car trouble diagnosed.” Hodgon’s hands were often caked with grease from working in his tire shop out back.
Full-service gas stations were common in the mid-1970s, when Delbert Hodgson and his cousin, Bruce Hodgson, took over the family business. Over the years, most of those full-service stations gave in, laid off their mechanics, switched to self-serve and installed ATMs in their gas pumps. But Riverside Service never gave in. “When we remodeled, in 1998, we decided to keep the full service out front,” he said, “We felt that it was us.”
“It was my summer job,” said Delbert’s son, Donny. “Go out and wash their windows, check the air in the tires and check the oil if they needed it.”
Delbert grew up on the north side of Eloika Lake and graduated from Riverside High School in 1967. After two years of mechanics at Spokane Community College and three years in the Marines, he and Bruce ran the business together for over 30 years. “We shared hours,” said Delbert. “One or the other was always here.” Bruce became a silent partner in 2005, leaving Delbert to run things alone.
The Hodgsons often hired local teens; for many of them it was their first job. The kids learned how to change a dollar, and how to change a tire. “Most of the kids stayed around three or four years,” Delbert said. “They wouldn’t just leave after six months.”
Delbert would often come out and talk with customers. “He’d walk up to the window while the car was filling, and you could relax with him for a minute,” Moran said. “He made getting a tank of gas a pleasant experience.”
The personal service often caught highway travelers by surprise. “They would look at you in shock, like, ‘What are you here for?’ ” Delbert said, laughing. “After the initial shock, though they really appreciated it.”
Full service was a hit with the locals as well. “We got a lot of ladies, guys in suits, older people, handicapped people,” he said. “All of those people, they knew we did full service, so we got (their) business.”
Stephanie MacNamee, one of the last kids Delbert hired, still works at the front pumps. “It’s weird, coming in here and not having Delbert here,” she said. “He’s just always been here, since I was little.”
The Ram Drive In evolved over the years, from an old drive-up building with a couple of picnic tables to a full-service restaurant. Countless families have made stopping for burgers and the Ram’s signature huckleberry milkshakes a vacation tradition. “Going to the lakes, going to Schweitzer, they stop at the Ram to get the huckleberry ice cream,” Donny said.
The Hodgsons leased the restaurant out; Robison has been there since 2002. “If I was going to be late on rent, I’d call him and he’d be OK,” Robinson said. “He (was) a fantastic landlord.”
Delbert floated credit to many of his regular customers. “When things got tight he carried them for a while,” Robison said. “He probably carried more people on his books than people realized.”
The Morans ran a tab with Delbert for years, paying it off whenever it was convenient. “We just wrote the check, we never checked his math,” Moran said. “You knew whatever was on there was right.”
Delbert is still adjusting to retirement. “He came in this morning to get some wiper fluid,” Stephanie, down at Riverside Service, said, laughing. “He was out there washing windshields!”
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