Bentson Contracting: Building Everything from Driveways to Highways
By Douglas Towne
Some Valley residents probably know Bentson Contracting Co. only from its sidewalk stamps around the city. That’s a shame, because the company was one of the most successful midcentury paving contractors and construction materials providers. Its owner, Kenneth G. Bentson, also had a long and admirable track record of civic service in Arizona and truly helped build the community in many ways.
How did Bentson become such an essential player in the Arizona construction industry? His daughters, Barbara Blewster and Dinah Lundell, believe it had to do with his upbringing in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he was born to Josie and Gilbert Bentson in 1905.
“His father, Gilbert, instilled in him old-fashioned virtues, self-reliance, and a willingness to work hard at the family’s general store owned by his grandfather, Bernt Bentson, in Silverton, Oregon,” Blewster, a former member of the Arizona House of Representatives, says. The family business, however, proved frustrating for Bentson as he worked with some of his eight uncles. By his teens, Bentson knew he wanted to be in business for himself with no family involvement or partners.
“Dad was never a great student,” Blewster recalls. "During the week to make money, he lived at a neighbor's home and milked ten cows before and after school. He then had a route by which he would deliver the milk to nearby residents. He also worked as a sawmill hand and other odd jobs during vacations.”
Bentson found time for sports and was an exceptional athlete, focusing on basketball and football in high school. On the gridiron, his speed and skill at catching passes made him the team’s star wide receiver in 1923.
After graduation, Bentson worked at a local Oregon bank for five years before taking a job in Los Angeles with Bank of America in 1928. "He left Silverton, and his sister offered him a place to stay in the city,” Lundell recalls. “Prohibition made alcohol hard to come by, so he and his sister would make their beer in the bathtub."
Bentson changed vocations in 1932 to deliver barrels of fuel, oil, and grease to industrial clients in the city’s Watts neighborhood for Union Oil Company. He was transferred to Phoenix in 1936, where he went door to door selling petroleum products to customers. Bentson resigned from Union Oil in 1938, after the company wanted to move him back to Los Angeles. He then took a job with Tiffany Construction, working as a salesman selling seal coat for subdivisions.
During this period, Bentson met Eleanor Follet, a native of Pima, Arizona. They married in 1939.
After hustling work to pave driveways and service stations for Tiffany, he decided to go out independently. "Dad said, if they can do it, then so can I, and launched Bentson Contracting in 1941,” Blewster says. “He started with used equipment and a little bit of money. He had one old pickup and a small hand-crank cement mixer.”
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Mar/Apr 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 2.