Yesterday’s cars needed gas, too

Melvin Meyer at the pumps in front of G&S Pontiac Sales and Service on the southwest corner Kalamazoo Avenue and East Prairie, 1960. The building was razed 1993 for the Village Marketplace.

By Margaret Snyder, Vicksburg Historical Society

Vicksburg followed the same path as the nation in the development of 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’s 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 demonstration 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 1900s the motor car was regarded as an expensive novelty, of interest only to doctors, lawyers, and others in “elite” society. The volume of sales of a dependable, affordable automobile was still decades away, and no one dreamed gasoline would ever become a sought-after commodity.

At the beginning of the 1900s, America’s major oil companies concentrated on the production of kerosene for the nation’s lamps and cook stoves. However, one barrel of crude oil yielded 40% gasoline, and only three percent kerosene. With little or no market for gasoline, oil companies were forced to 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 automatic mode, then go in for a cup of cappuccino and a bag of chips. The very first gas stations were simply bulk depots merchandizing 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. The Pennsylvania Oil Refining Company opened a wholesale branch in Vicksburg selling bulk gasoline and oil products around 1912, providing early car dealerships and gas stations with a convenient source of supply. This easy access to wholesale gasoline, coupled with the ever-increasing number of cars on the streets of town, set off an explosion, so to speak, of retail gas outlets.

The business of selling gas was 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 or groceries. A 1925 Sanborn Fire Map shows a buried tank in front of 108 South Main, where curbside gas service was once available along with the other goods sold by retailer John Long. Blacksmiths often got in on the action too, making the switch from buggy and wagon repair to automobile service and repair. The 1925 Sanborn Fire Map also shows a buried tank on the east side of South Main Street by the United Methodist Church, near the location of Billy Godshalk’s blacksmith shop. But by the 1920s many towns found themselves over-pumped 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, those interested in the gasoline business set up separate locations 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 a captive audience to merchandise other auto-related items, such as tires and oils. And 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 for the owner. One of the very first stand-alone gas stations was built by Walter Eldred on the southeast corner of West Prairie and Boulevard Street in 1912. In 1964, the structure was demolished to make room for an expansion of Krum-Hallam Chevrolet, now the location of Roxy’s and Rim and Rail.

When the Village of Vicksburg re-did East Prairie Street in 1992, a tank was uncovered in the roadbed in front of 123 East Prairie which can be traced back to the days of one of Vicksburg’s first car dealerships. Frank and Ray Tobey began selling Fords in 1913. In 1916 they built a brick showroom and garage on the north side of East Prairie, added the Oakland motor car to their product line-up, and installed a 550-gallon tank to provide curbside gasoline sales.

We still don’t know where Carson Durkee obtained gasoline in 1903 for the first trial run of his newly completed automobile. But we do know as soon as there were automobiles to burn up gas there were businessmen ready to supply it. Once again supply and demand determined the strength of an ever-growing market for gasoline for the ever-growing number of automobiles traveling Vicksburg’s streets during the early decades of the 1900s.

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