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Kansas salvage owner observes 50 years in business

OCW 'salvage hound' Ron Kowalke does it again. He finds a Dodge City salvage yard whose owner of few words has a yard full of old vehicles that speaks volumes about his 50 years in the business.

Stapleton Salvage owner Henry Stapleton is 81 years old and still
finds working in his yard everyday to be “therapy.” The Model A
Ford behind him is the car he drove to school.

My routine of arriving unannounced at the salvage yards I chronicle in these pages has, for the most part, worked well despite the risks associated with “cold call” visits. Oh, there have been a few cases where a yard owner just doesn’t want publicity — for various reasons — and I’m basically reading the exit sign above the office door within minutes of my arrival. It’s frustrating, but I take my lumps and move on.

After getting lost not once, not twice, but three times trying to locate Stapleton Salvage of Dodge City, Kan., when I finally arrived I was agitated. Yard owner Henry Stapleton was sitting in the entryway of his yard’s main storage building talking with a friend. He didn’t appear to be someone who would put up with some hyper stranger trying to convince him that a story about his yard published in Old Cars Weekly would be the greatest thing since duct tape.

While driving up the yard’s entrance, I could see vintage iron lined up well into the distance, so I knew the history of Stapleton Salvage would be a goldmine as far as story content. I had a hunch that if I didn’t want to quickly be shown the exit, the simple approach: “Keep your mouth shut and your ears open,” was my best shot.

My hunch proved correct, but to this day I can’t explain why Stapleton allowed me to tour his yard (more on that later). Regardless, based on the fact that you’re reading about Stapleton Salvage, I obviously got the story.

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The professional cars usually found in salvage yards have gone
through several owners, with quite a few ending their roadtime
as “Ghostbusters” replicas or haunted house promo vehicles.
This solid, complete 1956 Cadillac with S&S coachwork appears
to have been parked after its original ambulance duties ended.

Looking back, chatting with Stapleton for a long time before being allowed to tour his yard was some of the most rewarding time I spent on that particular week-long trip. While Stapleton turned out to be a man of few words, his every word counted.

A Bronze Star-decorated veteran from his military service during the Korean Conflict, Stapleton has also battled cancer. He needs knee replacement surgery, but has postponed it because it will keep him from working in his salvage yard. At age 81, when most men are content to be retired and drive a recliner, most days you can find Stapleton firing up his enormous front-end loader to move cars around in the yard or lugging tools into the yard to remove parts requested by a customer.

Part of what drives Stapleton to continue his harried pace is that he views working in the yard as “therapy.” Another motivator is what he envisions happening to his yard after he’s gone.

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Some of its body panels have suffered dents, but this 1953 Buick
Special Riviera hardtop is solid. It’s missing parts, but could
donate lots of chrome.

“When I die, my kids will probably crush everything,” he stated matter-of-fact. Based on what exists in the yard and how hard Stapleton has worked to bring it to its present state, that would be a tragedy.

Stapleton said he has owned the yard since 1959. He recalled that the land the yard now occupies was originally a cow pasture. “I used to hunt on this land. I brought old cars here to store, and just started selling parts [from them].” From that humble origin, Stapleton Salvage now occupies approximately 20 acres.

The yard’s layout is narrow and long — approximately one-half mile in length. The ground is a sand-rich base that is conducive to growing “pickers,” and the terrain is mildly hilly. Vehicles are aligned in tight rows, sometimes bumper-to-bumper, but Stapleton said he can retrieve any vehicle for a customer with the aforementioned front-end loader. In the past few years, Stapleton has switched to a policy of wanting only to sell whole cars, but he mentioned he might still sell parts “if the price is right.” He also retains many of his vehicles’ original titles.

Asked about the total number of vehicles in the yard, Stapleton joked, “I don’t want to know.” A conservative estimate based on what I saw as I toured the grounds is 2,000-2,500. The majority of the yard’s inventory spans the 1930s to the ’60s. Much of the more modern inventory gets crushed. “I don’t know anything about it,” Stapleton reasoned for not wanting to keep late-model cars in his yard.

For the past 30 years, Stapleton said he has most often been a one-man operation. He occasionally gets help from relatives, but customers who call or stop by need to be patient to allow him to fill parts and whole vehicle orders as best he can. He also cautioned: “If it gets too cold, I don’t do anything.”

In addition to the nearly 20 acres of the main grounds, Stapleton owns much of the land surrounding the yard’s fenceline. Some vehicles are staged in this overflow lot, and these are a mixed bag of cars and trucks, a professional car, as well as examples from many different manufacturers. And while the rows within the main yard are loosely grouped by manufacturer, there is still quite a bit of randomness in how the cars and trucks are staged overall. There is also the occasional large pile of parts to be found throughout the yard. I spotted one pile devoted to brake drums, bell housings and other “bottom end” parts, and another that appeared to consist mainly of engine blocks and cylinder heads. Think of it as a treasure hunt, but make sure your tetanus shot is up-to-date.

While the inventory includes plenty of hardtops, panel deliveries, pickups and several two-door station wagons, what the yard does not have is muscle cars.

“I sold all my muscle cars years ago,” Stapleton said.

He added that his business strategy leans heavily on word-of-mouth promotion to let the old car hobby know what exists in his yard. That reliance on the “grapevine” seems to have worked well, as Stapleton said the majority of his business comes from out-of-state, especially from Texas, California and Colorado. He’s even had customers travel from Australia, Germany and Sweden to tour his yard.

Stapleton Salvage does not offer parts shipping, nor does a computerized inventory exist. Customers are also not allowed to bring tools into the yard. Stapleton said he will retrieve everything the customer wants to purchase. Group tours of the yard are welcome, but only by appointment. Stapleton said he will accompany the tour groups and act as their guide.

Those who visit the yard will most likely be directed to view the one car parked out back of the office that will never be for sale (well, one of two vehicles, but more on that later). Buried in parts near the yard’s main shop is a well-worn Model A Ford sedan that has been parked on the piece of earth it’s shading for quite a while. “That’s the car I drove to school,” beamed Stapleton as he explained the significance of the Ford.

As for the other vehicle in the yard that Stapleton said is not for sale, it, too, is a vintage Ford, but it’s a pickup — a 1934 Ford pickup that’s near complete. It seems that one of Stapleton’s friends wants this pickup, but let it slip that he’s thinking of turning it into a hot rod.

Stapleton refuses to let the Ford out of his sight until his friend guarantees that it will be returned to the road in stock condition. Hobbyists who are sharp negotiators may be able to sway Stapleton to sell this jewel in the rough, but only if the buyer can guarantee it will remain as Henry Ford created it 75 years ago.

When I mentioned previously that my time spent getting to know Stapleton was rewarding, it was doubly so for another reason. It came close to not happening (aside from my getting lost multiple times trying to find the yard). Stapleton, in his reliance on the grapevine for attracting business, said that in the past he has denied yard access to automotive writers. He told me that Old Cars Weekly is the first publication with which he’s allowed an in-depth story to be written about his yard. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, but I suspect Stapleton is being truthful if for no other reason than he struck me as a man unconcerned about being in the good graces of Old Cars Weekly and how this kind of publicity might help his business.

For whatever reason Stapleton allowed me into his yard, we’re all the beneficiaries of that decision.

Hours of operation at the yard are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and weekends by appointment. To contact the yard, call 620-225-5557 or use postal mailing address: Stapleton Salvage, 11525 Lariat Way, Dodge City, KS 67801.

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