Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Fill ‘er Up

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By Phil James

When Service Was the Hallmark

Starke’s Cash Market with Amoco gas on Rt. 240 in Crozet was located ideally in the mid-1950s to serve the many employees of Acme Visible Records and Morton Frozen Foods. The Starkes and their employees ably met the varied needs of their customers. (Photo by Mac Sandridge)

“There’s more to running a business than the ring of the cash register,” Bob Crickenberger stated recently. The comment was a result of his many decades of polite and professional service to the traveling public.

The community surrounding Ivy Esso (Exxon) Servicecenter, as well as motorists on busy U.S. Route 250, which bisects Ivy, were benefited greatly by the partnership of Bob Crickenberger and Dan Wood. Together with their mechanics and attendants, they hustled to provide much more than a tank of fuel for their customers. One might even consider their ranks as models for the precision pit crews observed in today’s auto racing.

Ballard’s Sinclair, c.1945, on High School Avenue in Crozet. Its stylish but diminutive facade would be dwarfed by the Dairy Queen Convenience Store that occupies the location today. (Photo by Ray P. “Pete” McCauley)

If you were fortunate enough to have been a customer of a genuine service station, then you know the drill. For those whose only option has been to pump-your-own, here’s a brief glimpse of how it used to be when your car needed some gas.

When you pulled your car to the pump, you were greeted by a station attendant—likely the actual business owner—who greeted you with a “Howdy. Fill-’er-up?” During the brief time that your tank of gas was being pumped, both your windshield and back glass were washed and buffed dry. Without asking, the hood was raised and your motor oil was measured. The water levels in the radiator and battery were checked and topped-off if necessary, followed by a visual check of belts and hoses. A glance was taken at your tires and, if any were low, air was added at no extra charge.

“When it snowed, we even installed tire chains for our regulars,” Bob Crickenberger recalled. “We never gave a thought to charging our customers for that service.”

Station owners were familiar with their regular patrons and their vehicles, and a routine gas stop kept the attendant, as well as the driver, up-to-date on the vehicle’s roadworthiness, all in the brief time it took to pump the gas and make change.

In the first decade of the 20th century, America was just beginning the transition from grain-fed horse power to octane-driven horsepower. The blacksmith shops that had shoed the horses and repaired their primitive conveyances were being called on to repair the modern mechanical marvels.

Fox Brothers’ Sinclair service station and garage, c.1931, on U.S. Route 250 near Greenwood. Since 2006 the building has been occupied by Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)

Early Automobile Blue Books did not contain used vehicles prices as they do today. Instead, their vital information informed the motorist of what general conditions to expect along the typically poor wagon roads of the day. Mileages were shown between the all-important repair shops and gas and oil dealers.

Even Albemarle County’s oldest extant country store, the original 1850s Piedmont Store located in White Hall, shows vestiges of its later proprietors’ adapting to and serving the needs of the motorist.

Traffic increased as vehicle pricing became more attractive. The availability of gasoline became a factor in choosing which store to patronize, and many establishments added a pump—quite literally. Early gasoline pumps had a graduated, see-through globe on top and a long handle that was used to hand-pump the fuel from a reservoir into the globe. When the desired number of gallons was visible, the gas drained via gravity into the vehicle’s tank.

This lonely looking gas pump was probably a God-send for some early motorists in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Albemarle County. Along with modern restrooms, it complemented the roadside services at the Blue Ridge Terrace Dining Room and Cottages. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)

General stores and repair shops began to sport brand signage for oil, tires and replacement parts. Oil dealerships competed for business by building stations dedicated to servicing the ever-increasing traffic. They distinguished themselves through advertising, consistent levels of service, and the distinctly professional-looking uniforms worn by their attendants. Crozet native Grant Tomlin recalls Alan Rosencrans’ Conoco filling station and “the hard black rubber bow tie that was part of his uniform.”

Following the opening decades of the 1900s, the motoring public had much less concern about where or even “if” they might be able to locate gasoline. By 1950, the villagers in Crozet had known more than 20 locations where gas was sold. The earlier oil companies represented there included Amoco, Conoco, Esso, Gulf, Sinclair, and Texaco.

Don’t laugh—the hand-lettered 18¢ Good Gulf gasoline at a 1930s station was still expensive for rural and small town budgets. This dealership also offered its customers “curb service” for Coca-Colas: five cents each or an ice-cold six-pack for a quarter. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)

Most folks have at least a small degree of curiosity about what occupied their community before they arrived. During a local history question-and-answer session at an elementary school, this writer found that inquisitiveness to be especially high among the fourth and fifth graders. When a long-ago “service station” was mentioned, the classroom went momentarily silent before a student asked “what” that was. The terms “filling station,” “service station,” and “gas station” brought few looks of understanding. Not until a detailed description was given did that newest generation arrive at an understanding of these unique places and the services experienced by their ancestors.

Who knows…maybe one of those students will happen someday to sit and listen to Mr. Crickenberger or one of his cohorts and be duly inspired to revive that earlier grace of genuine customer service.

Alan Rosencrans’ Conoco station, early 1940s, formerly adjacent to Rockgate Cemetery in Crozet. (Courtesy of Charles Witt)

 

 

 

 

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2012 Phil James