Salute to Filling Stations
This morning I stopped to fill up with gasoline while commuting to work. In keeping with the times, it was, of course, self-service. I thought it interesting that the use of the term ‘self-service’ wasn’t necessary because there remains very few ‘full service’ ‘service stations.’ Come to think of it, the term ‘filling stations’ is rarely used these days. Most places selling gasoline are really junk food dealers of snacks and drinks rather than a place that can charge a battery, plug a leaky radiator, change and repair a flat tire, or adjust a temperamental carburetor. In most communities there are no places such as I remember from the old days. Filling stations have been replaced by (non-) service stations. I remember the old kind that were ‘real’ SERVICE stations employed two or three mechanics that stayed busy with vehicles dropped off or towed in to get some minor trouble-shooting and repair. They were called filling stations, but they provided important, if not urgent, services. When a customer wheeled in front next to the pumps, workers rushed out to inspect fluid levels, whether the tires were worn or low in air, or were perhaps in need of a quick vacuum and windshield wash. This was done while the driver stopped in to drink a cold bottle of pop, and by-the-way, ordered some gasoline.
We all surely remember when some stations converted to self-serve, while others continued a brave attempt to keep customer loyalties by pampering them and taking care of every perceived need. Even when those remaining stations were forced to stop pumping gas and cleaning windshields, they kept one set of pumps for self-serve while others had slightly higher prices for full-service. Finally, customers learned to use the pumps and became accustomed to cleaning our own windshields. It didn’t take long before the other services were phased out including repairs. Mechanics had to find another job or new line of work.
As this changed, so did the appearance those roadside refueling stops. The garages that earned a big part of their income became snack shops that selling drinks, candy, chips, and in some cases, even fried chicken. The art décor or colonial styling was replaced by newer designs that no longer sold tires, batteries, or made repairs. No longer was there a sound of a compressor and an air hammer being used on a car suspended on a lift. I know there are a few remaining of the older type, but today no attendant in uniform and service hat rushes out with the hopeful question on their lips asking, “Fill ‘er Up?”
I miss the sound of the bell that rang when I pulled in front of the pumps. That bell would alert those that had been busy working in the shop that another customer had arrived. They made it a practice to rush out and greet a friend. Sadly, today no uniformed attendant appears to pop the hood, check the radiator, and look for signs of corrosion on the battery cables. No one is washing the windshield or standing ready for you to exit the car so it can be vacuumed. For most of my life, air for the tires (including bicycle tires) was free. They even kept fittings so basketballs and footballs could be refilled. Many stations today will charge anywhere from $1 – $2 inserted in coin into a timed air dispenser.
When I was a kid I would wheel my bike to Simpson’s Gulf Station to have my flat tires repaired. I would stand by and watch them remove the wheel, pull out the tube, locate the leak and grab a repair kit. After sanding the area around the hole, a rubbery patch of just the right size was added. Then they added a compound before lighting a match to melt and weld the patch over the hole. Next, they would put air in the tube and test it for leaks in a tub of water. They’d then let the air out, stuff the tube back into the tire and fill it up again. I finally learned how to make the repairs on my own after buying a ‘hot patch’ kit from Buel Lyon, at the Western Auto store.
In those days filling stations were cash only, or ‘cash and carry.’ I don’t recall any that ran accounts, but for the repairs it is likely they did. In those days few people were blessed with much pocket money, especially before pay days, so the size of the purchase was often small. Rather than filling up on gasoline when a trip wasn’t envisioned, people would buy fifty cents worth, or maybe a dollar’s worth. If they filled up it was a sign that they were going out of town, or maybe even across country. Of course there were those who were well-healed or like to ‘show off.’
I remember that some days several of us would drop by a filling station and just hang out for a while. It was interesting to see who bought gas and how much. Sometimes, the passenger was a classmate or friend. If it was a slow day the owner or mechanic would talk and tell us stories while we guzzled some pop. If it got too busy they would run us off. Kids under foot could cause stress as duties were juggled. On a good day we would pick up all kinds of news about which businesses were doing well, which weren’t, and who was selling out, or what the new car models were like. Sometimes the wall phone would ring, and it would be someone trying the old ‘Prince Albert’ joke. (For later generations it goes like this: ‘Do you have Prince Albert in a can? (a brand of tobacco) When answered with a ‘yes,’ the caller would say, “Then let him out!”) That angered them a little because they had to drop whatever they were doing to answer the phone. Sometimes, for some of the stations it was a call for wrecker service. Not all had a wrecker, but all were subject to a call to help with a breakdown. I’ve seen them grab a tool box and jump in a pickup to head out to rescue someone at the side of the road.
The generation that worked in filling stations back in the day learned about customer service. Sometimes it wasn’t the price of gasoline but the treatment you got when you came in. Some would treat you as if you were the most important customer they had. That made you always ready to throw your business that way and to recommend them to others. It was a few years after I had gone into the service when I was a customer of a particular station where I lived. These folks were of the old school and would wash, clean, vacuum, test all fluid levels and even check brake lights when I came in. During the ‘fuel crises gasoline back in the late sixties, or early seventies, rationing rules allowed the purchase of fuel only on certain days. I remember being at work when my station owner, known as Pop, came by. During a casual conversation I must have mentioned that I was nearly out of gas but it was not my day to buy. Later, when I went to my car I notice the tank was more than half-full. It turned out that Pop had brought gasoline on his day off and refilled by automobile while I was working. I ask you, how could I ever take my business to anyone else? I was hurt and nearly despondent when he decided to retire and sold his business.
I started testing my memory about the brands I remember. The list of these important businesses grew to include others I had seen during those times. Not all of these were represented in our town, but I saw them in my regional travels. I’ve already mentioned Gulf, but I have to add some more names. There were Esso, Pure, Ashland, Texaco, Sinclair, Mansfield, Standard Oil, Marathon, Phillips66, Shell, Sun, DX Oil, and Flying A. It’s likely that readers will remember even more. Of course, names have changed for some, and mergers have also happened. There are many new names out there, but most got their start as one of those already mentioned.
The very first filling stations, now called gas stations, started out just after the automobiles started showing up. That stands to reason, I suppose, but the very first pumps were installed just outside of country general stores and even groceries. Usually, just one hand-drawn pump was there. I remember one that I saw somewhere that was a visible model that let the gasoline fill a glassed-in section at the top of the pump before it was allowed to flow through the hose. Most had electric pumps in my time, but I saw some that had to be pumped like you would a well. I suspect some pumps were converted from kerosene pumps everyone used to fill lamps and heaters. All of this coincided with the arrival of electricity and the paving of some roads. Tin Lizzies ran all over the mountains and valleys guzzling up gasoline at twenty-five cents a gallon, or even less. Those days are long past!
When I was growing up my hometown had seven filling stations. I’m fairly sure of that number because my friend Bernard Nelson has told me. If I tried to name those I’m sure I’d overlook one or two. The people who owned and worked in these truly ‘service’ stations knew both the trouble and the rewards of providing good customer service. In fact, these were a whole generation of people that put value on showing deference to others and demonstrating care of their customers. It was more a personality trait with some mountain logic mixed in and not a sales gimmick. Caring was their business and it showed. I tip my hat to those who served us in that day, as well as others that still go that extra mile. It makes life better for all of us. Let’s us purpose to show some ‘extra’ kindness to someone in honor of the old times. email@example.com