It’s a Fine Life: Full-Service Lament

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Jon Saunders of Vicksburg was the attendant at the Marathon station on Portage Road in the late 1960s. This personal service was gone by the late 1960s according to J.R. Fulton, a Vicksburg resident who worked at several local gas stations.

By Kathleen Oswalt-Forsythe

I miss full-service gas stations – where I could swing our old Chevy in, roll down the window, and greet a reliable mechanic. He would cheerfully fill my tank, wash the windshield, and even check and add motor oil if needed. When I tell my students about the way it “used to be,” they look at me like I have two heads.

Anywhere we traveled 50 years ago, there were dependable, staffed stations. If our engine started clunking, or if we suspected a tire were going flat, we could coast off the highway where a mechanic was usually on duty. Back in the day, owners lived behind or above mom-and-pop stations at rural intersections with a pump and small store for bread and other essentials; if folks ran out of gas after hours, they could knock loudly on the shop door, and eventually drowsy owners would appear.

While there were many full-service stations around the village, our family relied on Fred Hiemstra, who owned and operated a service station on the corner of South Michigan and Prairie Streets. Fred also ran a towing service, often hoisting himself into his tow-truck which began rolling before he even closed the door. He was like an uncle to many of us: he took care of our cars, hauled vehicles out of snowbanks or ditches, and usually did not share that information with our parents. We sure appreciated him.

When I was about ten, my little brothers and I perched in our station wagon at the top of the lift in Fred’s shop while he changed the oil. Gripping the door tightly, we leaned out the windows and surveyed his garage: tool chests, racks of tires, and the garage floor sat nearly 10 feet below. By some miracle, we managed to stay in the car and not fall to the oily concrete. Perhaps my mother was in the car? Perhaps she was in the waiting room taking a break from the five of us? Or perhaps my dad casually chatted below as Fred released the plug and the dirty oil ran from the pan? I don’t remember.

Like many business owners and tradesmen in town, Fred was also a firefighter. When the alarm sounded, tools were set aside, sales calls ended abruptly, and hardware customers had to wait, as these dedicated folks dropped everything and attended house fires, car accidents, or other emergencies. These volunteers were a comforting reminder of the many people in our community who cared.

There is still a place for a full-service station. I would be so thankful for the convenience and another connection with the wonderful people and businesses in our hometown. We wouldn’t risk spilling gas on clothes, our windshields would be clean, and our oil levels would always be within range.

Of course we would pay more, but I would be a loyal, rewards-card-carrying customer. I suspect many of you would be, too.

It’s a Fine Life

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