By Daniel Thompson
Editor 

After 60 years of business, Kimball Laundry is up for sale

 

Daniel Thompson

O'Brien states that selling the business is one of the hardest things he's had to do.

After 60 years of owning and operating Kimball Laundry and Dry Cleaning, Jim O'Brien has finally hung a 'For Sale' sign in the window in preparation of walking away from the business that has been part of his life since he was 15 years old.

O'Brien remembers the early days of the business, back when they used four ringer wash machines and automatic machines were simply a fantasy.

"It had a tub and you took them out one piece at a time and put it through a ringer and squeezed the water out of it then you put it through three different rinse tubs and then you squeezed the water out of it and then it went most generally to the line to be dried on the line," O'Brien said.

The business had been started by O'Brien's uncle and a friend in 1953 before being taken over by his father in response to a growing need they saw present during the oil boom of that time with the workers needing a place that they could get their work clothes washed and cleaned after a long day out in the oil fields.

"Most of them lived in very small trailer houses 8x30s or something like that with five or six kids usually. They would have to go out to get there laundry done. Well, there were no other facilities so my uncle and another guy started laundry here in Kimball with these ringer machines, and the ladies would come in and pay by the hour to use the ringer machines and wash their clothes," O'Brien said.

Over the years, the business evolved to accommodate the growing demand throughout the community to wash uniforms, rented mops, rugs, and restaurant linens. However, with increasing competition, the business was forced to give up its commercial laundry aspect in 2003, bidding it away to Ideal Laundry in Scottsbluff.

"Clean Harbors had opened, and we had their business. But the competition had gotten really stringent, because there was a giant laundry in Ft. Collins and one in Laramie and one in Scottsbluff that all wanted to come in here and take all the business. So at that time, I was 65, and I decided that I'm not going to fight these big boys," O'Brien said.

It was around this time that O'Brien and his wife decided to purchase the old monogramming business which would become their Monograms and More store.

"At that time, there was a business of monogramming here in Kimball, and we weren't quite ready to retire yet so we thought that would make a nice little addition to doing personal laundry and dry cleaning which we had been doing," O'Brien said.


The laundry business was not the only long standing commitment that O'Brien had over the years. He also ran the Kimball County Ambulance Service for 42 years under a private contract from 1940 until 2012.

"It was kind of a strange marriage of laundry business and an ambulance service. In a town this size, most generally, you can't go around having your eggs in one basket. You have to have a lot of things to keep a small business operating and that worked perfectly for us, because we could utilize help when they weren't busy going on ambulance calls which probably only average one or so a day. They had all this spare time so we could use the help in laundry, and if a call came in, we'd go on the ambulance call," O'Brien said.

The early days of the ambulance service were exciting for O'Brien, getting in on the ground floor of EMS.

"At that time, a good percentage of the ambulance services were operated by morticians. They had the vehicle and the cot so if there was somebody sick, they'd go out and pick them up, put them on the cot and take them to the hospital to get fixed. Well, all the technology that came out of Vietnam for caring for the sick and injured in the field, mostly injured, was brought in to what they called EMS, the third service," O'Brien said.

O'Brien was also able to witness many of the advances that took place in the field over the years which were a welcome change from the original training that he and his crew received in the beginning.

"We went through all the changes. When we took over, we had taken Red Cross first aid training. That was very minimal: a few bandages here, a few splints there, no oxygen. All of the technology came right about that time. We were very fortunate to get in on the very beginning of something that turned out to be quite spectacular, in my opinion, with what it's done for emergency care in the field," O'Brien said.

The ambulance service of that time also received a great deal of help from Dr. James Plate who arrived in Kimball when the service was just starting and took time to teach the EMTs certain medical procedures.

"He and another guy came here and opened their practice in 1975, and I got acquainted with him. EMS was getting bigger and bigger, and he was brand new in the doctor business. He just loved to teach us EMTs everything, and, I mean, he was spectacular. Our people almost felt like doctors, because we were associated with him and all the things he allowed us to do and showed us to do," O'Brien said.

O'Brien describes his time in the ambulance service with pride when he considers the early days of the service and the efforts he and his crew made to learn the most recent practices.

"We became defibrillation certified with the electric shock which has since then become a public thing that you see in airplanes and schools and everywhere else. We did intubation where we could assist the breathing and all of these things gradually they allowed small services in rural areas to take those things on, and we always prided ourselves in being the first in every one of those services as they became legal for us to do them and get certified in them," O'Brien said.

However, in 2012, the contract came to a close with the county deciding to run the ambulance service themselves.

"We thought they would find out very soon that it was a mistake, because it was going to cost them so much money to operate, which it has. It's cost over a half a million dollars in the last two years to operate it, and when we were running it for the county, we were operating in the black the last year we ran it before they took it away from us. We made $50,000. The money that we ever made, the county is not allowed to make money on a business, so we would just use it to update equipment and service to the community during that time," O'Brien said.

Without the contract and money that it brought to the business, it started to struggle, inevitably leading to the O'Brien and his wife deciding to put it up for sale.

"We thought we'd probably see some change of heart by them and hung on for a couple years, and we finally decided that after having some help issues this last year, unable to keep people on steady, that maybe it's time to retire. So we put the place up for sale," O'Brien said.

The decision to put the business up for sale was not made lightly by O'Brien who refers to the decision as one of the hardest he's ever had to make.

"It's almost like I'm letting everybody down, because this is my job and I'm not going to be doing it anymore. Hopefully, there would be some interest in purchasing it. I doubt that very seriously, but we're going to try it for the month of January, and if that doesn't work, we're going to have an auction and auction our property and all the equipment and machinery off," O'Brien said.

With the end of his involvement in the business in sight, O'Brien thinks back fondly on his time working in it throughout the years from working for his father to working beside his children in the establishment.

"It's been my life. I tell everybody I started sweeping the floor for my dad, I worked my way all the way up to CEO of the company, and now I'm back down to sweeping the floor again," O'Brien said.

Looking back, O'Brien is appreciative of the support that he has received over the years and that the business was able to run for as long as it did and the success that it brought with it.

"It's certainly never been the money. However, I put three kids through college, and we've had our own home and prospered over the years in business here. But we probably didn't become part owners of the bank or anything. But it's been good to us. The communities been really good to us and supportive of local business over all these years, but it's got to come to an end," O'Brien said.

However, O'Brien will readily admit that it is not the end that he had in mind in the past when he thought about handing the business over to a new owner.

"1973 is when I bought the business from my dad, and he retired. He and my mom had run it, just like my wife and I do, for 20 years from '53 to '73, and I was hoping that my kids would. But some things don't work out for some people," O'Brien said with a chuckle.

When asked what he'll miss most about the business, O'Brien struggled to come up with a simple response as he thought over both his time in the Kimball Laundry and his time in the ambulance service as the two had been so intertwined throughout the years.

"Just serving the people. I had 40 years of running the ambulance services. You talk about missing something. That was like, in days of old, printer's ink gets in your blood. I hate not having those two things to do: Serve the public and work for people," O'Brien said. "If I miss anything, laundry is kind of a grunt business, but ambulance is pretty wonderful to be able to help people like you can in that."

However, O'Brien states that there is a chance that at least part of the business could remain after the laundry closes its doors.

"Perhaps part of our business may stick on the monograms that my son is running. It has to have something else with it that's profitable. Perhaps they'll figure out something along that line, maybe a full-time job somewhere and do that part-time. There's a lot of jobs out there that my last girl that I had hired, very good person, took a job at the hospital. Well, they work six days on and eight days off. If you could find something along that line, then he could operate the monogram business as a side perhaps. We'll see," O'Brien said.

Daniel Thompson

The business which has stood at the corner of Walnut and Highway 30 will close its doors.

 

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