“He’s just the nicest guy,” were the first words Lynn Wilson said when she was asked about Rodney Prestegard of Little Island. Prestegard has lived and worked on Puget Island for 69 years. He isn’t sure when his family first moved to the Island. “You know,” he said, “I never really thought about it, but I really don’t know when my family moved here.” He went to school in Cathlamet and then joined the Navy in 1959. He returned to the Island after his tour of duty. “I built my house across the street over there,” he said, pointing to a little bungalow-style house across SR 409 from his big shop on Little Island.
Prestegard is a large, soft-spoken man with broad fisherman’s hands, friendly eyes and large, deep penetrating voice. Meeting him you get an instant sense that his nature is friendly and genuine. “I really can’t think of too much to say, “ he said as the interview began. Prestegard said he worked for Wahkiakum County as road supervisor until he retired in 2000. “I was also a commercial fisherman,” he said, “and I fished nights while I worked for the county.” He said in the beginning he used his big shop for his fishing gear and that’s how the shop came to be the center of his life. Prestegard’s shop is a large building almost sixty-by-one hundred feet in length. But it’s the amazing stuff inside that catches your eye.
Years of tinkering have left a treasure trove of collectibles--cars, trucks, tractors and one special boat. A full-sized replica of the first Columbia River gillnetter to sail the river in the late 1800’s sits in the back of the shop. Prestegard’s boat is retrofitted with a one-cylinder gas engine. “I pulled the engine out of the muck in front of my house,” Prestegard said, “and had it restored,” The boat is “bristol” inside out. Its varnish shines in the half light and its hour-glass design creates the impression of movement - even standing still.
In front of the boat sits a fully restored 1954 Chevrolet flatbed truck. “I got that truck for free,” said Rodney with a bit of irony in his voice. The truck’s fire-engine red paint gleams. Its interior looks showroom ready. Its rebuilt flatbed and polished wooden stake boards look as though they’ve just rolled off the assembly line. “Yeah, and it only cost $22,000 to make it look like that,” he says with a grin. “…and look at this,” said Rodney as he disappeared around a brick wall ….
Around the corner, surrounded by stacks of milled wood, sits a tiny 1927 Fordson antique tractor - fully restored. “It runs great too,” said Rodney. The little cast iron tractor is also show room mint. Its huge steel wheels, front and back, stand in silent memory of the farmers that used it at the turn of the century. “I put these rubber bands on the wheels to drive it on pavement,” he said. At the back of the shop, across a little field is a lean-to. The structure is filled with dilapidated tractors seemingly ready for the scrap heap. “I’ve got about seven more waiting for me,” Rodney said with real anticipation. “I had 13 tractors when I began.” “I’ve sold a lot of ‘em,” he said in a voice that held a moment of regret. “I’d rather keep ‘em but I just ran out of room.” Rodney said over the years his restoration list included too many vehicles, “…and I won’t keep something if I can’t keep it inside,” he said.
Prestegard is modest about another aspect of his character - his Good Samaritan reputation. He doesn’t like to talk about the people he’s helped over the years. “Oh I don’t know,” he said shyly. “I just like people and give ‘em a hand when they need it.” Here, too, Rodney’s good will is built around his shop. His friends told him he should open a repair shop because he doesn’t mind doing little welding jobs for neighbors and friends. “People say, ‘Hey, with this shop you could make some money.’ and I tell them I’ve done that.” Prestegard said one day a fellow broke down in front of his shop and he repaired the guy’s car. “He just had to give me twenty bucks ... so I took it,” says Rodney, “and that’s the only money I’ve ever made helping someone.”
Lynn Wilson is Prestegard’s neighbor. She said Rodney was the first person to come over and lend a hand when she and husband Bob moved in. “He brought over his front-end loader and helped us move some heavy stuff around,” said Lynn. “He is just a sterling man.” Wilson said Rodney always has time for people. “People are always stopping by to sit and talk with Rodney,” said Lynn, “and I’ve never heard him be rude to anyone.” Prestegard’s quick wit, large shop and always interesting projects, pretty much guaranteed his friends would drop by to chat. But the “old boy” chatter about boats, cars and fishing came to a halt after Bald Eagle Days. “I don’t know,” said Rodney, “when we got back from Bald Eagle Days someone had broken the lock off the door and stolen a welder, oxyacetylene torches and grinder.” Prestegard said his shop had never been broken into before and until the recent robbery he’d often gone off and left the shop’s huge bay doors open all day. Now he’s upset, sad and leesry of people dropping by. “Really, I get nightmares thinking someone came to visit just to case my shop. but I know that’s what they did because they knew where everything was that they wanted.”