Gene Phelps remembers when Oak Harbor was a quiet little town where the only traffic jam was caused by Arnie Freund leading his cattle across the highway.
Much has changed since 1967 when Phelps opened his own store on Pioneer Way and started selling paint, drywall supplies and wallpaper.
A year later, he moved down the street into a building that was once an old auto repair shop and made it the permanent home of what has become an Oak Harbor fixture — Gene’s Art &Frame.
Like the concrete blocks that make up the structure’s exterior, the business has stood the test of time, outlasted competition and survived change while continuing to serve Oak Harbor customers for half a century.
Phelps, now 95, watched the city grow up around his store, which stood as a solitary building when he moved in.
“I’ve seen everything get built out here,” he said, looking out his front window. “There was nothing. There was a bank down here called Everett Trust and Savings Bank on the corner. There was nothing over here.”
That would soon change, starting with a Safeway store next door, now home to Ace Hardware, and auto dealers across the street.
What didn’t change was Phelp’s commitment to provide the Oak Harbor community with quality custom frames. He was a contractor by trade, traveling to military bases across the country to help build Capehart housing for service members.
It was that job — and not his nearly five-year stint in the Navy and naval reserves during World War II — that brought him to Oak Harbor to settle down with his family.
While he continued to work in construction, he started his own business and would spend the evenings in his basement building picture frames with a small handsaw.
The tricky part was getting the materials.
Since the freight he desired wasn’t delivered to Whidbey Island back then, Phelps would drive his station wagon to Seattle once a week to pick it up himself, loading the back with cases of glass and stacking bundles of framing materials on the top. The rear of the station wagon was so weighed down it nearly dragged on the ground.
“Those were the good old days though,” Phelps said. “It was really fun.
“The money I’d save on freight, I’d go have lunch at Ivar’s in Seattle.”
Phelps’ store quickly transitioned from paint, wallpaper and drywall materials to custom frames and art supplies as its staples. Craft supplies also were once a big part of the focus until their popularity diminished.
Custom frames remain the heart of the business with active duty, veterans and retired service members making up the majority of the customer base.
Items framed include artwork, photographs, medals, coins, pins and American flags.
The store offers a 20 percent military discount.
“We do a lot of retirement designs where people have a flag given to them at retirement,” said Linnane Armstrong, the store’s manager since 2008.
“We do everything by hand in a way that keeps a lot of focus on treating people’s artwork and their memories in a really special way that you don’t get in big box stores.”
Phelps no longer builds frames, leaving that to Armstrong and two other employees.
But he’s still actively involved in the business, arriving six days a week to handle the books and the bills and to order art supplies.
“I love this place,” Phelps said. “This is my second home.”
It’s been that way for a long time. Gene’s Art &Frame is one of the city’s longest running businesses.
“He’s always been a good friend to the community,” said Al Koetje, Oak Harbor’s mayor from 1972-96.
And the community has brought many good friends to him, Phelps acknowledged.
“We’ve had some really great customers and we have certainly appreciated them,” Phelps said.
“This is a great place to work,” Armstrong said. “And it’s a big testament to Gene that he’s managed to keep it going.”
n Gene’s Art &Frame will celebrate its 50th anniversary from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, June 3 at its store, 250 SE Pioneer Way. Refreshments will be served. There also will be a children’s activity and a painting demonstration.