Clare County Review & Marion Press Columns

Postcard from the Pines: Need Gas?

The history of gas stations and their owners in our little town would require a bookkeeper and true enthusiast to track. From grinding grain to changing tires, the story of the Marion Roller Mills becoming the Texaco could fill several pages alone!
I know of eleven places where there were gas pumps of one kind or another in Marion’s past. There was no environmental or other alphabet soup protection agency in much of the last century. If a guy wanted to dig a hole, put in a tank, stick a pump atop it and sell gas to the motoring public, that was fine. Just make sure that the pump measured and rang up correctly, and you weren’t bothered.
Marion motorists had their choice of several brands of gas at one time or another. Standard, Peerless, Texaco, Gulf, White Rose, Phillips 66, Pure, Leonard, Marathon, Sunoco, and Sinclair come readily to mind. The Shell is a relative new comer on the local scene, and Marathon has made a comeback. They are making memories for the new generation of drivers who don’t know how many choices we once had, or that among them were two, full service Gulf stations in Marion. Both were located on M-66, north and south of Main. One was where the parking lot between the highway and the Middle Branch now accommodates Main Street shoppers. The other is now part of the new-to-us, Marathon on South Mill.
Few folks today know, or remember, that Marion’s Frosty Freeze building began life as a gas station. It was reborn into our favorite summer ice cream treat store, in 1965. The ghost of another short lived gas station sits close to the west Village limit, between North Case and Birker streets, passed and ignored by hundreds of travelers every day.
The prominent Shell station site, which dominates the southwest corner of Mill and Main, has a venerable service station history in our town. Originally, this corner hosted a hotel and several businesses. After fire destroyed the last wooden structure, a brick Peerless gas station was constructed, sometime in the very early 1930’s. It was a small building, positioned to face the corner, also giving it easy vehicle access. It had a roof over the pumps. The Peerless became a Sinclair station by 1940 and eventually gave way to the bigger and better, cement block, two bay, three pump Sinclair station, with two walls of glass windows, about 1947. Full service and mechanic work in a state of the art setting, too.
My dad purchased the Sinclair station from Pete Daugherty late in 1949. By 1950 he had a new business and a new baby and was promptly called from the Air Force Reserves into the Korean conflict. His tenure in the filling station business was on hold for a couple of years. By 1952 he was back in Marion and in business.
Berry’s Service was, what gas stations were, a man’s domain. Women drove up to the pumps and an attendant put the specified amount of gas in the car, washed the windows, checked the oil, made change and the lady was on her way. If a lady’s car was to be serviced, it was picked up or dropped off and the process repeated when the job was done. She did not wait around.
Needless to say, I did not get to hang out at the Sinclair. I visited the place with my mother, who picked up bookwork, wrote checks and delivered meals from time to time. It was indeed a fascinating, forbidden and potentially dangerous place.
As much of a man’s domain as it was, the station had a lighter side. On the corner, where the Sinclair sign stood, dad grew petunias each summer. Rather than mow a roughly 8’x10’ patch of grass, he removed the sod, worked in a good deal of manure and socked in the petunias. They thrived in the sunny spot, well watered and tended. They grew big and fragrant and lush enough to hide the tomatoes and onions he planted among them. For a while, dad kept quite a little garden on the corner of Mill and Main. Each summer, the petunias became quite a well known landmark for travelers on M-66.
Dad sold the Sinclair in 1964. He brought home his tools, some award plaques, his account books, and many other things accumulated. We had a collection of various give-away and Sinclair advertising items, plus maps, pens, key chains, plastic dinosaurs and Sputniks. If you know what a Sputnik is, it’ll date you. For the most part, my parents were glad to be done with the business.
A new age for gas stations came to town with the first self-serve gas pumps. Lonnie Baughan ushered in the do-it-yourself era in the spring of 1977 at the old Sinclair, then Atlantic-Richfield. I guess that we probably saw it as keeping up with the Joneses and the rest of the country, instead of the sign of the changing times that it was. While we thought we were stepping into a new improved age, tossing off the old ways, we were really welcoming a change in our way of life that was to spread to other things, never to return. Once begun, we can’t go back.
Today, the equivalent of pumping your own gas in 1977 is checking out your own purchases at the dollar store today. And that, like pumping gas, you can do yourself in Marion. I wonder what jobs we’re going to eliminate next?

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