10 May 2013

Gasoline Stations, Part 1

Welcome back. A few months ago, I featured Miriam Biskin’s guest blog post on widowhood and the merry widows she has known and studied. Today, I’m delighted to present a guest post by Miriam that’s a look back at oil, the Great Depression and growing up around her father’s gas stations. Given its length, I’ll split the post between today and next Tuesday.

Once an ordinary expense, the cost of gasoline for your car is now almost a luxury, and it’s twice as expensive in Europe. Self-service stations are the norm (except in New Jersey and Oregon, which ban them), even though many of the elderly and disabled are willing to pay an additional fee. At these self-service mini marts, you pump your own gas, check your own oil, wash your own windshield and pay at a coin-operated machine for air for your tires. And you can pay or swipe at the pump.

There was a time back in the early 1920s when my mechanically inclined father decided to leave the junk business and convert his shop into a garage where he could sell gasoline and do automobile repairs.

He certainly wasn’t alone in his plan. The first gas station built as a gas station was constructed in St. Louis, Mo. in 1905. Altoona, Pa. claims the site of the oldest existing station in the country--in operation since 1909. The first drive-in gas station opened in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1913; gas was 27cents a gallon.
 

Dad’s Gas Stations
The author in front of her father’s
gas station, 1920s. Note the gas
pump on the left.

In front of Dad’s establishment, embellished with a huge SOCONY (Standard Oil Company of New York) sign, was a solitary unsheltered gas pump where, rain or shine, Dad was available to fill a customer’s tank, clean the non-shatterproof windshield, check the oil, inflate the skinny tires and even give credit.

Sometimes, local farmers chose the barter system and our basement was amply filled with bushels of apples, potatoes and jars of tomato sauce and peaches that Mom preserved by canning.


The author’s father in his second
gas station, where he sold electrical
appliances, radios and tires. 1928.
Dad’s gas station went so well, he opened a second station, where he also sold electrical appliances, radios and tires. When I was young, the hose on the single gas pump in front of the store had a loop, which looked like a swing to me. I had to try it, of course, and I still have a scar on my forehead from when the metal section broke away. At least the gas didn’t spurt out.

Family Driving


Dad was enamored with the Model T Ford, whose radiators, springs and heater cores were manufactured in nearby Green Island, N.Y. Despite this passion, his first car was a Packard Touring car, suitable for himself, Mom, my three brothers and me. On Sundays, we piled in for long rides to Saratoga Springs to imbibe in the healthy stinky sulfur water (another story for another day).

When we were older, my brothers were equally car crazy. George, the eldest, a student at nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was quite a sight in his raccoon coat and his rumble-seated flivver (i.e., small, cheap, old car). Carl, the next in line, was a mechanical genius, always disguised in greasy overalls and oily gloves. Then came Manny, the business man with a bicycle, delivering packages for a fee. Manny actually saved enough to buy a Model T before he was old enough to get a license.

And I was the little sister, begging to be taught to drive. Dad finally offered me a 5-1/2 ton dump truck, thinking I would be too embarrassed to be seen in such a crude vehicle. I showed him, happily driving the track at the nearby Ford testing and proving grounds.

To be continued next Tuesday. Thanks for stopping by.

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