Fill 'Er Up
All things in this world, living and not so much, like to be close to companions like themselves. Did you ever notice how dead people tend to gather in cemeteries, how stones tend to make up quarries? Imagine a couple of grains of sand saying, “Hey, if we could get the guys all together, we could make a desert.” Trillions of drops of water might conspire to form an ocean. Wolves run in packs. Hooved animals herd up. Fish go to school. Most birds fly in flocks.
Humans congregate in like groupings, too. New York City collects ethnicities in Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Jewish enclaves. Even small towns have their traditional ethnic divisions. Blossburg had an Irish and Welsh section down on the flat; Polish newcomers were pushed up the hill; the Swedes went to the south of town. Aside from a flourishing Italian community in Williamsport, the city is a great place to join a German Club. Sayre has its own Little Italy but also has an area that caters to Ukrainians. We humans like to be near those who are like us. When we get together in a spot, it’s called a neighborhood.
And neighborhoods have always catered to the residents.
In the 1950s, Wellsboro was host to nine neighborhood groceries. Churches and synagogues grew in neighborhoods, too. In Blossburg there were two Catholic Churches, one for the Irish and one for the Polish, on the same street, within several hundred yards of each other. That was in a town whose population never exceeded 2,500. In fact, within a four-mile radius of Blossburg’s center, there were seven Catholic churches at the turn of the century. In Morris Run, the Irish and Polish Catholic churches bracketed the Swedish Lutherans and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in the middle. Some local towns had Lutheran Churches that were “German” or “Swedish” but Penn Yan had a “Danish” Lutheran Church that served dairy farmers whose ancestors hailed from Denmark.
Once the automobile became a common means of travel, neighborhoods quickly began accommodating drivers and car owners. One Wellsboro wag was heard to say, “All this town has are gas stations, churches, and bars.”
Like any neighborhood business, these service stations had regular, reliable, loyal customers, and for good reason. You trusted the guy pumping your gas, because he also checked your oil, cleaned your windshield, polished off your headlights, and checked the air in your tires. Attendants did all this while chatting amiably, and pumping that ten-dollars’-worth to the penny. During this era, gas prices ranged from twenty-two to twenty-eight cents a gallon.
One seasoned Wellsboro senior with petroleum running through his veins remembers all those gas stations. There were fourteen fill-up spots in a town of 4,500. Most stations did repair work. Three service stations also sold groceries. Where were these purveyors of octane?
Well, to start, use the red light as the center point (Wellsboro had only one red light until the 1960s, and that was at the intersection of East Avenue and Main Street). Within a half-mile radius of that red light there were seven service stations. In that circle there were also five new car dealers, three used car dealers, and ten establishments where legal beverages were sold. But who’s counting?
The closest set of gas pumps to the red light is nearly a tie. Ernie Fowler ran an Esso station in the Putnam Building and operated a tune-up and repair garage where the old Dunham Feed Mill once stood on East Avenue. Ernie was personable, always smiling and willing to help. Hot or cold, his sleeves were up showing Popeye-sized forearms that were always ready to turn a wrench or a good turn. In 1965, he would “put a tiger in your tank” as Esso adopted that advertising slogan. By 1972, the Esso tiger had become Exxon. When Ernie decided it was time to hang up his wrenches, Ralph Crawford took over the business. The site of Ernie’s gas station now houses From My Shelf bookstore.
About the same distance from the red light on Main Street was Ted’s Esso, and around the corner from Main to Tioga Street, just before Harsch’s Produce, Red Luther also pumped Esso—three Esso stations within a five-minute stroll.
Ted Wilcox operated Ted’s Esso. During the war, Ted had been wounded assaulting Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Ted was also Hollywood handsome, and he always grinned while telling the latest jokes. Ted’s Esso was a hangout for teenagers, and he ran it until June of 1967. The site is now the Sherwin-Williams paint store next to the Arcadia Theater.
Red Luther’s real first name was Ivan, but locals would not have recognized that at all. Red worked a family business with his bride, Viola. Red and Vi managed a neighborhood grocery store along with their gas business. Luther’s Esso and Grocery concern sat next to Harsch’s Produce “on the curve” heading out of town on Tioga Street. Their store was a handy and friendly stop for folks who worked in town but lived near the Luther’s home in Stokesdale. That site eventually became a brand new building that housed a veterinarian’s practice.
Between Ted’s Esso and Luther’s Esso and Grocery, on the point where Main Street divides into Tioga and Charleston Streets, Scoop Scranton pumped Mobil gasoline into neighborhood fuel tanks. Scoop also did repair work. Most of his customers were sports fans who enjoyed blocking his pumps while talking about the high school football team. Above the garage and pumps, Scoop’s place had a huge twenty-by-ten-foot neon Pegasus, the winged horse that was Mobil’s signature. That red neon flying steed could be seen from a half-mile away. Scoop moved on, following his kids to Florida, but the site still has pumps and a garage. Today it is John’s (Mosso) Service Center and is the only place in town where someone still pumps your gas for you.
A fellow named Fred Howe operated a Sinclair gas station at 9 Charleston Street, right around the corner from Scoop’s Mobil. Howe also provided a taxi service and auto detailing for his customers. Drop your car off, or Fred would pick it up, and the business gave your ride “the works.” Wash, scrub, rinse, chamois, wax, vacuum, and more came with the detail. That site would later become Davis Sporting Goods and today houses the local AAA office.
Less than 200 yards away, almost across the street from Red Luther’s place, Jerry Day sold Sinclair gasoline and did repair work. Jerry’s kids, like many Baby Boomers, scattered, and the station died with him. His station’s site is home to Al’s Chain Saw Sales and Repair, now under the ownership of Al’s son, Eric.
Go back to the original red light and head up East Avenue. Right next door to Ernie’s Esso, Woody Bliss pumped Atlantic gasoline for his customers. The station itself was owned by Root Oil and, after Woody, several folks ran the place, the last being Dick Moore. When Dick left to operate his own repair business just out of town, the place was renovated into a pizza and sub shop for a few years. The building is now vacant.
Directly across the street from Woody’s Atlantic, the Bache Theater held down the corner of Pearl and East for many years. Age, neglect, and disrepair caused its demise in the mid-1950s. The Finkle family had brought Gulf gas to the Northern Tier, and a Mr. Broughton from Morris seized the opportunity and built a Gulf station on the Bache spot. Tired of the commute, he eventually relocated his business to Morris, and Ron Bowers took over. You could and can talk hunting and fishing in most places in town, but dedicated fly fishermen gathered at Ron’s Gulf. When Ron closed shop, First Citizens Bank bought the place, razed it, and erected a brand new bank branch.
Further up East Avenue, near the edge of the borough, Millard Goodwin pumped Sunoco and worked on cars. His buildings are now Safelite Auto Glass. Across the avenue, Elijah Peake, known as Lige to his friends, ran a gas station that dispensed Esso. Yep, yet another Esso gas station, making four within a mile. Glenn “Bill” English worked for Lige Peake, and when Lige passed on the business, Bill English took over. There was a brisk grocery trade there as well. Like most small businesses, it was a family affair. Son Ed English recalls his time at the pumps with a smile. Gas stations had become the 1950s and ’60s version of the old country store.
“Everybody who stopped for gas came in and added to the discussion, whatever it was,” Ed recalls. “We didn’t have a cracker barrel or a pot-bellied stove, but it sounded like we ought to have had those things most of the time. Our station was just a place where friends got together and talked.” Eventually, Putnam Oil Company razed the English Esso Station and erected a new corporate office. Several of their Esso stations were closed and those that remained became Acorn Markets.
Edging south on Central Avenue one could find Mitchell’s Garage. While the majority of their business was auto and truck repair, they did pump gas. Those headed west could find Louden’s Gas Station and Grocery Store. Larry Louden mostly ran things, but his sons Dave and Oopie as well as nephew Jack helped out. The gals hovered in the grocery sector, operating the cash register. That store was on the corner of West Avenue and Kelsey Street. When Putnam Oil bought the place, it was turned into an Esso-dispensing Acorn Market, and operated as an Acorn for years. Several years ago, Putnam Oil closed the door, tore out the gasoline tanks, and then sold the premises to Kevin and Jenny Connelly, who leased it to The Eye Center, a Williamsport-based optician. Dean Appraisal, a local real estate appraisal business, purchased the building from the Connellys. Louden’s Gas and Grocery now houses an apartment in the rear and Dean Appraisal in the former grocery area.
How many gas stations were once in your hometown?