Owner of Hi-Mountain Drug in Kamas came to serve
May 23, 2008
Walk into Hi-Mountain Drug in Kamas and you’d swear you’d stepped out of a time machine into the 1960s. Belly up to the lunch counter, gobble down a cheeseburger and fries with a chocolate malt, and you might even think you’d gone to Heaven. Then stroll down the aisle to the tiny pharmacy at the back of the store, fill your cholesterol prescription from pharmacist and store-owner Craig Van Tassell, and you’re good to go. "The fries and burgers are probably not the best for you but they’re sure good," he’ll tell you.
Though the store offers stellar lunch-counter fare, a diverse inventory from books and souvenirs to fishing and scrapbooking supplies and all the modern conveniences, there’s a feel to it that just takes you back. That’s how Van Tassell, whose family has owned and operated the store since 1968, likes it.
For Van Tassell, family has always been first. Born in the old hospital in Coalville, he grew up on a working ranch in Woodland, near Kamas, with his parents and younger sister, Gaye. He went to school in the Kamas Valley, excelling in math, chemistry and biology classes. "I guess I was always kind of a science guy," he confesses. He was an avid school athlete, playing on the basketball, football and tennis teams en route to graduation from South Summit High in 1967.
He was also exposed to music along the way. "My mom kind of wanted me to play the accordion and I took lessons for a few years. I sort of gave it up when I was about 12 or 13, but I still get it out and play once in a while," he says.
He recalls the halcyon days of his youth with great fondness. "Kamas was a lot different back then. Everybody knew everybody, so you didn’t have to worry about trespassing. If you wanted to go hunt or fish on somebody’s property, you just did." Van Tassell remains an avid hunter and fisherman to this day.
Growing up, he was a regular customer at the Kamas drug store, a fixture in the valley since the 1920s. "It started out as a confectionary and sort of evolved into a drug store in the 1930s," Van Tassell explains. "My mother worked at the drug store when I was in high school and really liked it. We were a close family and owning a family business appealed to us. When the store came up for sale in ’68, I pooled my savings with my parents and we bought the place."
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Van Tassell attended Brigham Young University in Provo for a year before undertaking a two-year mission in Puerto Rico for the LDS Church. He returned to Kamas and a job at the drug store with his parents in 1970. It was there that his career path became clear to him.
"I worked with the part-time pharmacist at the store and enjoyed it," he says. "I decided pretty quick on pharmacy school, enrolled at the University of Utah and graduated in 1974. When I went to school, it was to come back here because this was home and I wanted to serve the people here. We really didn’t have a full-time pharmacist and it was something we needed. It’s been my job for almost 34 years now."
Assuming the mantle of Kamas Valley’s only full-time pharmacist, Van Tassell settled in, married and raised a family. He has six grown children and, although divorced, maintains close ties with all of them. They’ve strewn themselves across the country from nearby Oakley to Nevada, Illinois and New York.
In 1980, the family remodeled the store and expanded the pharmacy. Van Tassell contributed substantially to the effort and became an equal partner and half-owner of the store with his parents. "We’ve kept some of the original store, though," he says. "At the front of the store by the fountain there’s some tile that goes back to the 1930s. Once some people came in and wanted to buy it and a few years ago an old guy came in, saw it and said he used to work for the company that made it."
Through the years Van Tassell has gotten to know his clientele very well. "Most of them I’ve known since I was a little kid," he says. "Most folks around here know that if they get in a bind in the middle of the night they can call me and I’ll try and take care of it. I’ve done a lot of after-hours stuff over the years and I’ll continue to. These people are like family to me." It’s a work ethic that’s nonexistent at today’s grocery-store-chain pharmacies.
Van Tassell is a quiet, humble man, a committed citizen with a strong sense of civic duty. Through a lifetime of service, he’s woven himself tightly into the fabric of this plucky, enduring mountain community. He’s been on the restaurant tax committee and served on the Kamas City Planning Commission for several years. "We’re meeting this week to talk about maybe getting some street lights on Main Street as part of our beautification project," he notes. He also remains deeply involved in his church community.
"Kamas has definitely changed," Van Tassell observes. "Some of it’s been good and some hasn’t. I always knew Kamas was a special place. Now a lot of people know it and I guess that’s OK."
"There’s more people here and some nice folks have moved in," he continues. "I’ve got some really great new friends who appreciate the community for what’s here. They haven’t tried to change it. They’ve improved and added to it. Still, I’m glad it was the way it was when I was a kid."
Van Tassell says he’ll retire in six or seven years. "I’m going to try to stay in business until then," he says. "There’s a lot of things working against small, family-owned businesses and I think I’m the last one. None of my kids are interested in running the store," he notes with some sadness.
What will Van Tassell remember? "I’ll look back and just feel good that I was able to help people and that it’s been a family business. It’s been good to stay close to family. I’ll always remember that."
Hi-Mountain Drug will hopefully live on under new ownership in a few years. Until then, Van Tassell wants people to know he’s still here. "Come and see us, maybe have a burger or fill your prescription. I think you’ll like the feel of the place," he grins.
Age 59, unmarried, six children
Favorite foods: "I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy."
Favorite music: light rock from 1960s to present