14 Things You Might Not Know About U-Haul

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

If you’ve ever pulled up housing roots, you’ve probably realized that your accumulated possessions are more than enough to fill up a 26-foot-long rental truck. That’s good news for U-Haul, a company with 70 years invested in offering a fleet of vehicles to transport everything from furniture to cat stowaways. (More on that later.)

If helping entire households transplant themselves sounds like a mammoth undertaking, it is: The family-owned and operated company has seen its share of growing pains over the years. Check out some facts on corporate fistfights, a CEO fond of tossing money out the window, and which of their moving supplies are safe to eat.

1. U-Haul once compared its trucks to covered wagons. 

When Leonard "Sam" Shoen and his wife wanted to move from Los Angeles to Portland in 1945, they found that no one was willing to rent them a one-way trailer. Shoen, who had just been discharged from the Navy, saw a need to enable families in a post-World War II economy to relocate on their own. He began U-Haul that same year, with the company comparing the trucks to the covered wagons of the early frontier. Customers could rent the trailers for $2 per day—a small price to enable what Leonard's son Joe would later call a “better life.”

2. U-Haul's orange color scheme is a safety thing. 

Originally, Shoen had painted his trailers black. That proved to be a problem when he made a turn at a four-way intersection and got hit by an oncoming vehicle because—according to the other driver—he couldn’t see Shoen. The U-Haul owner immediately set about copying the bright orange design he had seen on highway barricades so his fleet would be visible to other drivers on the road. The distinctive paint job also made the vehicles double as portable billboards for the company.

3. U-Haul trusted their trailers to complete strangers. 

Before U-Haul was able to establish a footprint in every major city across America, their strategy was to entice local business owners to become “agents” for the company by dropping off rented trailers at motor vehicle service stations. Customers would drive to their destination, find a station, and leave the trailer (trucks weren’t introduced until 1959) along with a packet of information about becoming an official dealer. Though it risked losing their haulers to disreputable owners, the tactic paid off: By 1954, the company had over 1000 locations.

4. U-Haul used to rent VHS tapes.

The oil crisis of the 1970s closed many service stations, a fixture of the company’s business. Opening self-contained rental facilities enabled U-Haul to stamp their familiar orange brand across a variety of rentals: RVs, jet skis, lawn mowers, paint sprayers, and even party supplies were among their offerings in the 1980s. The most dramatic off-message business: VHS tapes. U-Haul opened seven locations in Michigan in 1985 that rented movies [PDF]. (It operated under the name Haullywood Video Rentals.) Customers could also make use of a free VCR rental that was customized with the familiar orange chassis. Lack of inventory and competition from the thousands of video stores that popped up that decade suffocated their business, though, and the company soon returned to their core hauling services.

5. The U-Haul family got into a nasty feud. 

Shoen’s 12 sons and daughters often had disparate ideas for the direction of the company. In 1979, the founder made son Sam Shoen CEO, leading Sam’s brothers, Joe and Mark, to quit. Hostilities boiled over to the point that, according to Bloomberg, Leonard once accused the duo of being involved in a plot to murder Sam’s wife, Eva, in 1990. (She was shot and killed during an attempted robbery.) Mark filed a defamation suit that was thrown out of court due to his status as a public figure. According to the Associated Press, a man named Frank Marquis confessed to the murder during his 1994 trial. His arrest grew out of a tip that came in after a segment on the crime aired on Unsolved Mysteries.  

6. A U-Haul shareholder's meeting erupted into a brawl.

The Shoens’ familial strife came to a head in 1989, when many company principals were in attendance for a shareholders' meeting in Reno, Nevada. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mark Shoen got into a verbal altercation with brothers Sam and Michael. Tempers grew so heated that Michael was “pummeled” by Mark and Joe. The senior Shoen, who had been forced into retirement during the power scuffle in 1986, observed of his business that he had “created a monster.”  

7. The founder of U-Haul liked to toss money out of windows. 

IStock

Though the company seemed relatively calm under his watch, Leonard Shoen was far from being a demure chairman. To demonstrate the ease with which a corporation could waste money, Shoen arranged for a visual by appearing in front of employees during a meeting in 1970 and tossing $1000 out of the window. Anyone who found the action objectionable was forced to watch it anyway: Shoen had placed an armed guard at the door.

8. U-Haul once banned Ford Explorers. 

Besieged by complaints of turnovers and vehicular accidents owing to improper loading precautions on their trailers, U-Haul took the unusual step of refusing to rent trailers to anyone intending to attach one to a Ford Explorer beginning in 2003. According to a 2007 Los Angeles Times feature, the company’s reasoning was that Explorer SUVs were frequently the target of safety litigation, inviting greater potential for U-Haul to become involved in a lawsuit. (Defective tires on 1998 Explorer models resulted in several fatalities.)

9. The CEO of U-Haul gave out his personal phone number for anyone to use.

When news media, including The Los Angeles Times, reported on a series of turnover accidents involving U-Haul fleet vehicles in 2007, current CEO Edward “Joe” Shoen didn’t hide behind a corporate-speak press release: He appeared on Inside Edition to explain that the accidents were likely due to improper loading. If any customer had questions about the vehicles or the company, he said, they could phone him directly. He kept his promise: Shoen has answered the phone on Mother’s Day, at home, and at 5:45 a.m. Most days he’ll get between three and 10 calls. “Sometimes, though, someone may post something angry on the Internet with my phone number, and then I’ll get 100 calls in one day,” he said in 2013.

10. Cats like to hitch rides in U-Haul vehicles. 

Marco Varisco, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Several felines have been discovered among boxed-up belongings in U-Haul vehicles. One stray used a truck as a delivery room, giving birth to a kitten as a family drove from Florida to Utah; a cat missing for nearly two years was found across the country, tucked away in a U-Haul, and returned to its owner thanks to a microchip. The cat, Kevin, was an orange tabby.

11. Pythons also enjoy U-Haul rides. 

While litters of kittens are adorable discoveries, monster reptiles are significantly less charming. An Oregon customer drove a U-Haul truck for an entire day without realizing a 3-foot-long ball python had been curled up in the passenger-side leg space right next to him. No one is entirely sure how the snake got in the cab.

12. Marriages have been proposed inside of U-Haul trucks. 

Indiana resident Mark Nolt hatched a unique plan to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Kim Shannon, in 1992. Nolt took her to a drive-in where he and a friend had spent the afternoon preparing a truck to look like a cozy dining area with a table, chairs, and flowers. The friend, Kyle, called it “exquisitely tacky,” but it apparently had charm: Kim said yes.

13. The space above a U-Haul cab is called "Mom's Attic." 

Though the origin of the name remains a mystery, the company has a specific label for the small storage space that appears above the driver’s cab on its trucks and vans: Mom’s Attic. The area is usually reserved for fragile items that may not survive a trip in the body of the vehicle. U-Haul claims items stored here are as stable as they would be in the cab itself.  

14. U-Haul packing peanuts are edible. 

Citing concerns over the lack of biodegradability of conventional Styrofoam packing peanuts, U-Haul opted for a more eco-friendly alternative in 1993. Their in-house peanuts are made of corn and potato starch that totally dissolve in water, eliminating both environmental harm and the potential for a child or pet to harm themselves via ingestion. U-Haul staffers have even eaten the peanuts to demonstrate their virtues—though we wouldn’t recommend it.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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