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Sunday, February 24, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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His Stove Was Hot Idea While It Lasted -- Inventor Recalls Bygone Millions

The Register-Guard

CAMP CREEK, Ore. - Sometimes it seems so very long ago, as if the intensity and the insanity of it all was packed into some other lifetime.

Bobby Fisher can laugh about it now, tell it as an almost-funny story on himself. Even though it nearly killed him.

In 1973, Fisher was out of work, one jump ahead of the repo man on his pickup and borrowing money from his mother to build a wood stove that might keep his family and his unfinished home warm through an unemployed winter.

Within six years, something like 150,000 Fisher Stoves were selling annually around the world. At an average of around $500 a pop, that was knocking on the door of $75 million in gross sales.

Not that every dime of it funneled back to the inventive welder who built the first one. Millions of it ebbed elsewhere - to suppliers and to advertising agencies and to testing laboratories and to the licensees who built the stoves in the United States, Canada, England and Australia.

``From '73 to '83, there were something like 1,200,000 Fisher Stoves made,'' Fisher recalls. ``Most of them were made by licensees. I just took a royalty. If they were short on money, I'd pay for the materials so they could get started. When they couldn't pay their royalties, I'd wait.

``I probably lost several million dollars on those deals. I made some people rich. A lot of them were good, honest people. But some of them weren't.''

With Carol, the wife who rode the tiger with him during that frenetic stove-building decade, he enjoys the rambling house-that-stoves-built northeast of Springfield.

These days, he's a hands-on farmer who lives for the months when he can work the hayfields of his 115-acre place. And after the hay is in, a growing collection of valuable antique tractors keeps him busy.

When he began welding The Stove together on that rainy October day back in 1973, he was an unemployed high-school dropout with two divorces and a lackluster military record behind him.

``I was basically an underdog,'' he says. ``In some ways, I still think of myself like that. I didn't do good at a lot of things.''

But he did good at making that first stove. It drew well. It didn't smoke up the house when the door was opened. It held a fire overnight. And Carol, his new wife of a year, discovered that the split-level top, built like a pair of steps, provided a dual-temperature cooking surface for soups and stews.

By early 1974, he was building stoves in a rented shop in Springfield. Driven by the oil embargo and rising electricity costs, the mid-'70s boom in wood heating had begun. Though Fisher didn't know it then, he was a front-runner.

What he did know was that the world had begun beating a path to his door and that life suddenly had become very, very complicated. Running a small crew, he'd build stoves all day and then head off into the night to do installations.

The Fishers were into the game so early that their stove galloped to a commanding lead in early sales in the Northwest. Some initial laboratory tests showed that the two-level stove top aided firebox turbulence and promoted more complete burning of volatile components from the wood.

Within a year, Fisher had licensees around the Northwest building the stoves and paying him a royalty, usually about 5 percent. In short order, the network spread across the nation and into Canada. The back orders increased; at one point they totaled 65,000.

The headaches mounted even faster. Royalty payments ran late. Some licensees split off and began making unauthorized versions of the Fisher Stove. Though Fisher had obtained a design patent on the stove, he elected to devote his energy and his money to building stoves rather than to court fights.

His blood pressure mounted. Though he was a homebody who hated travel and airplanes, he was flying regularly around the country, getting farther and farther from the shop work that he enjoyed.

The most momentous trip came in 1977, when he and his wife and John Watkinson, their attorney, journeyed to Kansas. They met with officials of the Hesston Co., the giant farm-machinery manufacturer. Watkinson remembers the visit as a classic Bobby Fisher story.

Hesston wanted to manufacture stoves - as many as 800 a day - and liked what it was hearing from the dynamic little welder from Oregon. Fisher wanted the deal badly because it could erase the backlog of unfilled orders. But Hesston demanded that Fisher sign a $750,000 letter of guarantee to cover expenses if the joint venture failed.

Fisher had never faced a number like that. The contract gathered signatures as it went around the table. It came to him last.

``My arms were aching, my hands were sweating,'' he recalls. ``I was scared. I didn't know if I could do it. So I kind of put my arm around in front of the paper and I signed. . . .'' At a subsequent meeting with Hesston officials, Fisher's nose began spewing blood and his arms became weak. Rushed back to Springfield in an airplane, he was diagnosed as a stroke victim. He was 35.

``When the doctor said Bobby would die if he went back to work, that put things in perspective,'' Carol Fisher says. ``We made some changes.''

The stove business tailed off in 1980, pinched mostly by the fact that the market had been saturated. Fisher sold the shrunken company to Eugene businessman Trygve Vik, who operated it for a couple of years.

It's a memory now, a small mountain of boxed papers stored in their basement along with that very first Fisher Stove.

``Maybe I could have kept pushing,'' Fisher says. ``Maybe I could be the world's largest manufacturer of those new pellet stoves. And if I was, I'd be sitting in some damned board meeting right now.

``I'd sooner be home.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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