Thursday, May 10, 2012

Would It Work Today?

There is a huge market for "vintage" items now. A couple of the blogs I follow to the right; Smile and Wave and Thompson Family-Life; are penned by women who worship vintage, thrift relentlessly to find just the right piece that I look at and think, "I remember when that was new". It's amusing, in a way, to see my childhood now held up as a pinnacle of design or color or kitsch. But then, I remember cruising antique stores for the right chair or end table. My collection of Jewel Tea china, as an example, was once something  given away in oatmeal boxes. Hence I guess our view of what's called "vintage" or "antique" varies as the years separate us from when the item was new.

Where am I going with all this? Well, today's old photograph is of the gas station where my dad worked for a time. Yes, I grew up on a farm but I really think dad never wanted to be a farmer. It was the only way of life he knew, however, and he was sort of expected to farm. His father helped my parents buy the farm where I lived my life from age 3 to age 20, when they moved into town. Grandpa spent a lot of time with us, helping with everything a working farm does. It's not an easy life. It wasn't when I spent my years pitching hay nor is it now. I think my dad would have rather been a man working in a factory than a man on a tractor.

After grandpa passed away, farming became less and less what dad wanted to do. He started looking outside the farm, with its spotty income, and took a factory job. He worked that until the factory closed and then did a number of other jobs in and around my hometown. One of them was at this gas station.

I don't have the photo in front of me where I could read what I scribbled on the back for the identifying year. This was an open house at the station. For a 3-day weekend in the summer, the station had contests and discounted items. I remember a watermelon seed spitting contest, water balloons, a jar filled with marbles to guess how many, gift certificates to local businesses and discounted food and soda pop in the mechanic bay.

I can still hear the ding when you pulled into the station and ran over the line that activated the bell. Self-service was unheard of. Oh, in a small town, you could get by with it if the station owner knew you. I can remember my dad pulling into Smitty's and pumping gas because Smitty was busy with another customer, but usually, you waited. The oil was checked. Your windshield and back window cleaned. I remember the sound of the pump bell when you hit a dollar's worth of gas. I remember when gas was a quarter a gallon and the uproar of that. And I remember these small stations.

On the left was the retail area with a small office and a restroom tucked behind it. Unlike the markets that are attached to gas stations now, dad sold candy, gum, road maps, soda and small car aids like key chains, those trees that freshen the air and tire gauges. There wasn't much room and the soda machine took up a lot of it so retail was limited. Road maps HAD to be provided. It was just expected that if you wanted a road map, you went to a gas station. Given where we lived, he had maps of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

To the right was a mechanic's bay. This would be unthinkable nowdays, to have your mechanic at the same place where you get your gas. Dad knew quite a bit about repairing cars but he learned a lot from the guy who owned this station. I don't remember his name. They sold tires and paid one of the local farmers to come take the old tires. Occasionally, they had one or two cars awaiting parts for repairs sitting next to the station, but this guy's mantra was to finish repairing one car before taking on another because he didn't like having a bunch of "broken down" cars around his station.

These small stations are pretty much gone, only a memory. The building above still stands and the concrete islands where the pumps are in the photo were still there when I passed by a year or so ago. It was a repair shop with a lot of broken down cars surrounding it.

This gas company represents another era. Midland, Sinclair, DX, Texaco all those names of gas companies who serviced small town America are gone, gobbled up in the 1980's and 1990's.

Our lives are different. Dad opened the station at 7 a.m. Sometimes, he'd close it at 6 p.m. This station was located in a town west of Monona, named Luana. If you needed gas after 6, you had to either call up the guy who owned the station and have him open a pump for you (It was a key that turned the pumps on and off and it hung under the counter below the cash register.) or you had to drive to Monona where the Shell station was open until 9, 10 on home football or basketball nights. If the Mrs. was expecting, you'd best make sure you had gas for the drive to Waukon, Postville or Elkader because there wasn't anyone open after 10 p.m.

These places were also hang-outs for the men of the town. Yeah, you could go to the Corner Tap, but people generally frowned on that. So, if there wasn't a car needing repair, men would gather in the empty bay, drink coffee or soda and shoot the breeze. On a Saturday afternoon in the summer, it wasn't unusual to see 8-10 guys just sitting around talking about the crops or fishing or hunting or the Cubs or the Twins. You certainly don't see that in the larger cities anymore. I wonder if they do it still in small towns.

And I wonder, would people frequent a place like this if someone decided to try to resurrect it or has the time passed where this would be profitable? Full-service gas pumping with the amenities. I know my grandmother refused to go to a self-service station. She went to the same guy for decades. His son took over when he became too old to run the business. I remember she was distraught when the son had to close the station because he couldn't compete with the self-serve that opened up the street.

I don't remember when dad left this place or if he helped close it down. The relocation of highway 18 was a contributing factor. The traffic didn't go through Luana anymore so you didn't get people deciding to stop on the spur of the moment. Would they drive out of their way now for a chance at nostalgia? Would they pay 10 cents more per gallon to have a pump boy, for lack of a better description, come pump their gas, wash their windshields and check their oil? I have read that margins are razor thin for those who franchise a gas station with a convenience store. Could you make the ends meet if you provided car repairs with your gas pumping or do you need to offer beer, soda, a deli, aspirin, newspapers, chips and day old pizza?

Vintage or nostalgia? We thought we were cutting edge at the time. Is there a market for this kind of experience?

Beverage:  African Rooibos tea


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