Gas stations at one time dispensed more than fuel

BY BOB WACHS, News + Record Staff
Posted 4/12/19

I read a news story the other day about a gas station down east in North Carolina that’s a novelty in today’s world.

Seems the little place in a rural northeastern county does more than merely …

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Gas stations at one time dispensed more than fuel

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Posted

I read a news story the other day about a gas station down east in North Carolina that’s a novelty in today’s world.

Seems the little place in a rural northeastern county does more than merely supply petroleum. Rather than you having to get out of your vehicle, the folks who own the place actually come to you and pump the gas...and check the oil and the tires and wash the windshield and a whole bunch of other things that once were commonplace for the motoring public.

I’m pretty sure I remember when convenience stores, the craze of the day back then, were getting into their own and advertised that you could buy gasoline at a much cheaper price there than you could at the “full-service” outlets since the convenience stores weren’t saddled with the overhead of paying employees. Just out of curiosity, how’d that all work out?

Anyway, this throwback business in Camden County comes complete with a coffee pot — not a coffee machine — honey buns, seats all around (some of them “assigned” for the regulars), old bottles and pictures of the old high school, long gone now.

There are some petroleum products available other than the gas, which comes from pumps which aren’t digital. That means you can’t pay at the pump; you’ve got to come inside or either the owner will take your card or cash and go in for you. Sitting on the shelves are cans of motor oil, the paper kind where you have to punch in a pour spout on the top. Nearby on other shelves are individual cans of beans and franks, fruit cocktail and Vienna sausages along with the standard box of Lance’s saltine crackers.

In short, the place is, as its owner says, “part service station, part old folks’ home, part daycare center. Most of the guys who come in here helped raise me.”

If you ever watched “The Andy Griffith Show,” you’d see a similar place as Gomer or Goober Pyle rushed out of Wally’s Filling Station to serve a customer. But long ago and far away in my youth in Pittsboro, I was personally acquainted with one.

There were actually several all around and I knew most of them; in fact, practically all of them were of the same style. There was Marshall Atwater’s Gulf station on the southeast corner of the courthouse circle. D.W. Smith had a similar establishment on Sanford Road. Phillip Smith had a station on the courthouse circle and there was also Clark and Eubanks there as well. Just north of Bynum, G.R. “Dobber” Williams ran a Pure oil station where I had many a lunch of pork and beans and Viennas with my dad as he rode his insurance route.

But for childhood memories, for being accepted for who you were by your community as you made the transition to adulthood, for the news and gossip and warmth of small town, for me the centerpiece of all that was Gordon Burns Esso. The building is still there, only it’s now Elizabeth’s Pizza and every time I down a pepperoni pizza there, I remind myself I’m having supper in the wash pit.

There was a long list of characters at Gordon’s, both employees and customers who came in to while away 10 minutes or two hours. It started with Gordon, of course. I can’t remember how old I was when I first met him; couldn’t have been very old but from the start his name was Gordon, not Mr. Burns and it never seemed anything else other than natural and not disrespectful to call him that. One of my most embarrassing moments as a lad was when he spoke to me at Henry’s, the only restaurant in town at the time, and I didn’t recognize him because he wasn’t wearing his cap at the dinner table. He realized it, of course, and laughed and said, “You don’t know me, do you?” Naturally, I recognized his voice but after that I never failed to recognize him again when I would see him.

There were others, of course. Ernest Hudson was our family’s next door neighbor on Cornwallis Street when we first moved to Pittsboro about 100 years ago. He was a good mechanic who could fix about anything mechanical, including things that weren’t broke yet but would be soon.

Odell Jackson was the primary “front” man most of the time. You’d pull up to the pump and before you could crank — notice I said “crank” — the window down he was at your door. Smiley, as the whole world knew him, was the only fellow I’ve ever known who could fill your tank, check under the hood and refill the fluids, check the wipers and belts, wash the windshield and check the tires all the while asking how your mama and daddy were doing.

And then there was Bo and Little Bo and Frank Kirby and Fred Marsh and others whose faces I can see but whose names are long-gone somewhere. Later on, after I grew up, I got reacquainted with Frank Kirby when he ran the Bike Shop on the Sanford Road.

In those times, we were young and old, black and white. But all were welcome in the little front room with the big plate glass windows, where seats were sometimes so few you made do sitting on the ice cream box, and where you could charge your gas and pay for it later. I know BP will let you charge gas today and mail a check later but it’s not the same. One of my early chores after I got my driver’s license was for Dad to toss me the keys and some money and say, “Run uptown and pay Gordon.”

In my humble opinion, such an establishment today would go a long way toward eliminating nervous breakdowns and such.

I miss those guys.

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