Boomers Learned How to Fill ‘Er Up

If there was one thing that wasn’t lacking in the suburbs being created by the baby boom beginning after World War II, it was places to fill up the family car. Gas stations cropped up as quickly as the tract houses could go up.

The idea of a filling station wasn’t new. The first filling stations appeared shortly after a good number of automobiles with internal combustion engines were sold in the late 1880s to the early 1900s. Then, the fueling was accomplished at a blacksmith, hardware or general store. The proprietor would pump fuel from a barrel into a bucket, drop a funnel into the opening at the neck of the car’s gas tank and empty the bucket into the funnel.

The first dedicated filling station in the U.S. was built in St. Louis, Missouri in 1905, though some disagree. Other contenders are a California station that appeared in 1907 and one built in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1909. Despite the historical discrepancies, most agree the first filling station constructed to allow cars to drive up to a pump was opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1913. This station, owned by the Gulf Refining Company, has the distinction of being the first architect-designed filling station.

As cities expanded to accommodate the increase in population, houses were built in what had been farmland or acres of vast open spaces, carving out new suburbs. Cars, in what now seems an effort to match the grandeur of suburban scale, were bigger than ever — streamlined modern machines, forged of steel and weighing more than ever, with powerful engines to propel the heavy metal carriages. The extra weight and higher performance took their toll on gas mileage, but no one was concerned about driving a gas guzzler. Gas was plentiful and cheap. Gas stations constructed in the 1950s and ’60s to accommodate these suburban cruisers could expand over more area, with long driveway approaches and enough concrete to allow any vehicle room to move.

Fantastical stations made of glass and steel were constructed in some parts of the country, created in the mid-century modern style that is both revered and reviled today. Uniformed men came to your car to dispense the fuel and clean your windshield — it was long before the concept of self-serve became the norm. But Mister B didn’t live in a new suburb. Therefore, the gas stations that cropped up in his neck of the woods either made use of existing buildings or were simple, cinder block boxes constructed for the utilitarian purpose of housing an office and one or two mechanics’ bays. In some cases, the stations were reincarnated from previous stations dating back to the 1920s.

Of all the businesses that grew to meet the needs of an expanding population in Mister B’s neighborhood, none were more visible than gas stations. Within a few blocks of Mister B’s home were a multitude of stations that pretty much named most of the big oil companies of the day: Sinclair, Standard, Gulf, Mobil, Pure, Sunoco, Texaco and Cities Service, to name a few. Every major intersection had at least one, and more often than not, one on each corner. There were so many stations that they were never more than a few blocks apart. With so much competition, it was no wonder the oil companies tried to get more business by providing gift incentives with a fill-up.

To the kids in Mister B’s neighborhood, gas stations weren’t the pristine-clean establishments pictured on TV commercials. Rather, they were populated with men who were perpetually dirty. Mister B recalls how kids would especially remark on the black grease that took up permanent residence under a station attendant’s fingernails. The buildings were places of grown-up commerce, and as such, as irresistible as a Tonka truck in a sandbox to boomer boys. Generally, the attendants knew that gas stations were no place for kids to play, so they kept them away from gas pumps and car lifts.

There were times that the two worlds did intersect, though. In a pinch, if a kid just couldn’t make it home and had to “go,” the nearest gas station provided the spot for needed relief. In the early 1960s, station bathrooms weren’t locked, so a quick trot around the side gained full access to the rest room door. These trips were kept to a minimum, as cleanliness standards were pretty much non-existent.

More often than not, the best chance for the kids to interact with gas station employees was when they went to purchase an ice-cold, ten-cent bottle of Coca-Cola from the station’s vending machine. Not wanting to pay a bottle deposit, the boys took their time downing the full 8 oz. bottle in order to drink in the station ambience — or lack thereof. Smelling of gas and oil, even the office had an otherworldy atmosphere. At the very least, the chance existed to get a glimpse of a girly calendar or two. To young boomer boys, gas station calendars were mysterious and fascinating, with the best being placed on the walls of the mechanic bays. By today’s standards, music videos reveal much more than 1950s and ’60s calendars ever did, but at the time, that is what passed for risqué.

As the kids in Mister B’s neighborhood started driving and owning cars of their own, the stations brought boomers into the fold, providing gas, oil and car repair to a new generation. Yet things were not to remain the same. Two things helped change gas stations in Mister Boomer’s area. The highway near his home had been the main connection to a neighboring state and a truck route, but when the Interstate highway system was constructed in the mid-’60s, the majority of the traffic was then bypassing the gas gauntlet. By the time gas prices were doubled as a result of the oil embargo in the 1970s, some oil companies had merged, while others were renamed and rebranded. One by one, stations began to disappear. A few remained, and a few of those still operate as stations in the same locations today, but the gas station heyday of Mister Boomer’s youth had ended.

What memories of filling stations come to mind from your boomer youth?