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Fill ’er up! Gas stations in Vicksburg

Tom Cross Shell Station at the corner of Michigan and Prairie St. From left: Ron Reece, Duane Barnes, Arnold Kramer, and Tom Cross. The station was last occupied by Fred Hiemstra. Previous owners included Clarence Miller, Jack Derhammer, and Don Hollenbeck. Photo courtesy of Vicksburg Historical Society.

By Maggie Snyder, Vicksburg Historical Society

Now there’s nothing but a vacant lot at the southwest corner of Michigan and West Prairie where, for over 80 years, cars pulled up to the pump to get refueled and have their vital fluids checked. When I look at that lot, I can’t help but think about all the other gas and service stations that passed from the local scene during the last 45 years or so, as well as all those that came and went long before my time.

Vicksburg followed the same path as the nation in the development of its gas and service stations. The first stop along the way was the invention of the internal combustion engine and the realization that it could be used to propel some sort of four-wheeled vehicle, freeing travelers forever more from the slow-paced, often balky, and always labor-intensive horse. The next stop, of course, was…for gas!

Vicksburg hotel owner Carson Durkee built what is believed by some to have been the first automobile successfully operated in Kalamazoo County, starting work on it in 1899 and taking his first drive in 1903. Durkee’s car could travel seven miles an hour, and required a gallon of gas every 25 miles.

So where did he go to fill ‘er up?

We don’t know. However, we do know that during the early 1900’s the motor car was regarded as an expensive novelty, of interest only to doctors, lawyers, and others in “elite” society. Volume sales of a dependable, affordable automobile was still decades away, and no one dreamed that gasoline would ever become a sought-after commodity.

At the beginning of the 1900’s, America’s major oil companies concentrated on the production of kerosene for the nation’s lamps, lights and cook stoves. However, one barrel of crude oil yielded 40% gasoline, and only 3% kerosene. In an effort to find a use for gasoline, special gas-burning cook stoves and street lights were developed. But, the highly explosive properties of gas soon put a damper on sales. Kerosene, however, was much more stable and safe and was by far the most popular fuel. So, with little or no market for gasoline, oil companies were forced to just consider gas a waste product in the production of highly profitable kerosene. Therefore, it’s interesting that the development of the internal combustion engine and its application to the automobile was just what the oil companies needed to pump up profits.

Wherever Mr. Durkee got his gasoline, he didn’t just pull up to a pump at a convenience store, put the nozzle in the automatic mode, then go in for a cup of cappuccino and a bag of chips. The very first gas stations were simply bulk depots merchandising the liquid to the infrequent automobilist in cans or other bulk containers. Gas was stored in steel drums perched atop timber supports or perhaps on a cement base. It was dispensed by gravity from a valve-controlled spout into a measuring can, and then poured by hand via a funnel, with a leather chamois cloth inside to trap foreign particles, into the car’s tank. Cars had no fuel gauges, so sight and sound determined when the tank was full.

This filling process delivered most of the gasoline into the car, but of course, some always managed to splash on hands, pants and shoes. Because of the constant danger of explosion, bulk refueling depots were often located on the outer edges of populated areas.

As the number of motor cars on the road steadily grew, a better, safer way had to be found to dispense gasoline. And by 1910, flexible hoses, hand-cranked pumps, and recording dials indicating the amount of fuel pumped had taken much of the mess, guesswork and danger out of dispensing gasoline.

The business of selling gas was fairly uncomplicated by today’s standards. Any business could contract with a supplier, bury a tank, install a curbside pump, and dispense gasoline along with hardware, groceries or any other retail products. In fact, a 1925 fire department map shows a buried tank in front of 108 South Main, where curbside gas service must have once been available, perhaps along with the books, stationery and drugs sold by retailer John Long.

By the 1920’s, however, big cities especially found themselves over-pumped, with perhaps two or three on each business block, as every businessman was trying to get in on the action. Local governments soon began licensing gas pumps, and encouraging their relocation away from the main flow of traffic.

As soon as the local grocer couldn’t sell it directly from his store counter, those interested in the gasoline business had set up a separate location on a suitable lot, complete with a small building to shelter a pump attendant. It wasn’t long before it occurred to somebody that since cars had to stop for fuel, why not take advantage of essentially a captive audience to merchandise other auto-related items, such as tires and oils.

And, well, since the pump attendant was paid to hang around anyway, he might just as well learn how to fix the darn things and generate a little more money through doing minor repair work.

Check for Part 2 of this story in the July issue of the South County News.

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