Like Kleenex or Scotch Tape, the do-it-yourself moving company U-Haul has achieved such a level of national recognition that its name can be used generically in place of “moving truck.” It’s an empire with outposts in tens of thousands of neighborhoods across the country, but in 1945, it was little more than a concept born from post-war necessity, taking its first steps just outside of Portland.
The story begins with L.S. “Sam” Shoen and his wife Anna Mary. Like many families after World War II, Sam, recently discharged from the Navy, and Anna Mary wanted to move — to leave Los Angeles and journey north. But no one would rent them a trailer for such a journey and they ultimately took only what they could fit in their car.
In downsizing their personal possessions, the couple blew the lid off of a business idea with big potential.
The Shoens, along with Anna Mary’s brother Hap Carty, launched U-Haul in the summer of 1945 in Ridgefield, Washington, establishing a humble fleet of trailers purchased from welding shops and private owners. By the end of the year, 30 open trailers were being offered for rent at service station lots in Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle. Painted bright orange and emblazoned with the words “U-Haul Co. Rental Trailers $2.00 Per Day,” the product advertised itself everywhere it went.
By the end of 1949, people could rent U-Haul trailers for one-way use between cities throughout most of the US. The same was true in Canada by 1955. Box trucks joined the fleet a couple of years later when U-Haul started partnering with self-storage companies and other local businesses.
U-Haul’s corporate headquarters moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1967. Despite being the company’s birthplace, Ridgefield didn’t get a U-Haul dealer until recent years.