Cleaners closing after 57 years

February 23, 2011 02:59 pm

John and Jody Craig have decided to retire and close Craig’s Cleaners, La Grande’s last remaining dry cleaning business. The couple has owned the business since 1986; before that, it was owned by John’s father, Edwin, and grandfather, Leonard. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
John and Jody Craig have decided to retire and close Craig’s Cleaners, La Grande’s last remaining dry cleaning business. The couple has owned the business since 1986; before that, it was owned by John’s father, Edwin, and grandfather, Leonard. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

Three generations of Craigs have been dry cleaning in La Grande since1953

Craig’s Cleaners, a 57-year-old business in downtown La Grande, is calling it quits.

John and Jody Craig, owners of the venerable dry cleaning and laundry service at 1707 Fifth St., are retiring. Feb. 28 marks not only the end of their own years in business, but also the end of a three-generation Craig family dry cleaning tradition.

“I grew up in the business from the time I was old enough to push a broom,” John Craig said Monday as he and Jody continued to look after final details ahead of their last day.

Before World War II, both John’s grandfather, Leonard, and father, Edwin, worked at the Troy Laundry in Twin Falls, Idaho. Edwin joined the service; eventually Leonard decided he wanted to be in business for himself.

In 1953, he found the Nu Way Cleaners in the 1800 block of Sixth Street in La Grande for sale. He bought the shop, and brought Edwin in to help.

Between the two of them they built a successful business, and as they did they trained John in the trade.

“I had a paper route in La Grande and when I was old enough I came to work in the store, and I learned how to spot and press,” John said.

As a young adult, John left home, served in the armed forces and went to college at Oregon State University and Portland State. Jody was a student at OSU. They married in 1971.

Later, the couple ran a store in Sherman County. By that time, Leonard had retired and Edwin operated Craig’s Cleaners on his own.

In 1984, Edwin suggested John return home and join the family business. John decided to give it a trial run.

Craig’s Cleaners , which moved to its current location at 1707 Fifth St. in the early 1970s, was John and Jody’s career from then on. They took ownership of the business when Edwin retired in 1986.

“We’ve always loved this area and it was good that we got the chance to move here. When we were in Sherman County, we always said we were halfway home,” Jody said.

Even in a small town, the dry-cleaning business is a demanding one. Both John and Jody attest to putting in a lot of long hard hours, week in and week out.

See CLEANERS, 2B“You start work at oh-dark-thirty and it’s a continual process of taking clothes in, spotting them, cleaning them, pressing them and then getting them back to the right owners,” John said.

He said the challenges are a bit different every day.

“You can see a garment 15 times and there’s something different with it every time. You have to figure out the best way to get it clean. You’re playing detective all the time,” he said.

In recent years, the couple added a laundry service, catering mostly to specialty customers.

“We get a lot of people involved with rodeos and horse shows who like starched jeans and pressed shirts,” Jody said.

Jody said the thing she liked the most about running the business was having the chance to interact with customers.

“I didn’t like the having to come to work early, but I enjoyed the customers and visiting with them,” she said. “You get to know people, who their kids are and what’s going on in their lives.”

Through the years, Leonard, Edwin and John Craig all were active in the Oregon Drycleaners Association. Each one served at one time or another on the board of directors.

John and Edwin both are winners of the association’s Tom Mosher award, given to those who demonstrate a commitment to the industry and community service.

They are the only father and son to win the award, and John is the only person to win it twice.

Among his community involvements, John, a Lions Club member, helped start the local Coats for Kids program that makes sure disadvantaged youngsters have warm clothing during the winter months.

“I proposed it as a club project. The club liked it and The Observer came on as a sponsor,” he said.

In the beginning, all the local dry cleaners cleaned the donated coats before distribution. That service was discontinued as one by one the cleaners went out of business, but the program, founded in 1991, still thrives.

The dry cleaning business is a difficult one to be in these days. Business challenges range from a more causal attitude toward dress in the workplace to ever-more-stringent regulations governing the use and disposal of cleaning agents.

About 10 years ago, Odorless Dry Cleaning in La Grande went out of business, followed a few years later by Stein’s Washhaus. Craig’s is the only dry cleaner in town.

The decision to retire wasn’t an easy one for John and Jody to make.

“There’s not just any one factor, but we would have to make major equipment upgrades due to regulations, and at our age we wouldn’t be able to get a payback,” John said.

He said he and Jody are appreciative of their many customers and thank them for their business. He added that he regrets that Union County residents no longer have a place to take their dry cleaning.

“It’s tough from the standpoint that Northeast Oregon has been good to us, as we’ve tried to be good to them,” he said. “The worst thing is putting the county in a position where they don’t have the services.”

Even if John and Jody are a little wistful looking back, they are excited about having the chance to catch up on some things they’ve missed.

“We’re ready for a little rest and relaxation, going for walks again and being able to do more with friends,” Jody said.

Customers with clothes at Craig’s Cleaners are reminded that Monday is the last day to pick them up.