Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memories of my uncle’s service station in Vesta, Minnesota January 31, 2014

FOR DECADES, MY UNCLE HAROLD RAN the filling station along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Vesta.

The vintage Midland gas pumps purchased by my Uncle Milan at the gas station auction. My brother Brian recently bought the pumps from Milan with plans to restore them.

The vintage Midland gas pumps purchased by my Uncle Milan at the gas station auction. My brother Brian recently bought the pumps from Milan with plans to restore them.

It’s not the gas pumps nor the tires nor the anything vehicle related, really, that imprinted most upon my memory about his gas station.

Rather, it’s the vending machine that dispensed salted peanuts. And the pop machine, which, when pulled opened, rattled with icy cold bottles of 7-Up and Orange Crush and Hires root beer. Rare treat of soda drunk too fast. Burps stinging my nose. And salty peanuts in hand, their paper thin wrappings wafting to the floor.

I remember, too, the step down from the store interior through the tight doorway into the shop which smelled of oil and rubber and grime. The magical place of the hoist. Vehicles seemingly levitated into the air.

Vintage gas cans in my brother's garage.

Vintage gas cans in my brother’s garage.

This, a garage where my uncle and the mechanic I remember, Gary, changed tires and oil, replaced belts, fixed whatever needed fixing.

A gas nozzle from the Midland gas pump.

A gas nozzle from the Midland gas pump.

Outside, they pumped gas at this full service station. Rag pulled from back pocket to wipe the dipstick and check the oil. Wipers slapping against windshield as a squeegee washed away dust from gravel roads and crops and remnants of bugs splattered upon glass.

Memories, too, of boarding the Greyhound here, bound for Minneapolis. Me, a young farm girl with blue floral suitcase tucked inside the bowels of the bus, paper ticket in hand, ascending the steps. Alone. En route to visit my Aunt Rachel and Uncle Bob along Bryant.

When gas was only

The price on the old gas pump: only $1.41.9 a gallon.

Memories, still holding tight all these decades later, years removed from affordable gas and full customer service.

THOSE ARE MY MEMORIES. My uncle’s differ, yet intermingle with mine. Uncle Harold started driving gas truck part-time in the early 1950s for City Service in Vesta, eventually hired on full-time under new ownership in a new location at The Old Log Cabin. More on that later. He figured, Harold says, that delivering bulk gas for the new Midland service station would be better than farming.

My uncle's gas station with the fuel delivery truck parked by The Old Log Cabin. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000.

My uncle’s gas station, right, with the fuel delivery truck parked out front. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000.

Oh, the stories he could tell of his years working at, managing and then eventually purchasing the station, renamed Harold’s Service, in 1966. If I had all day to listen.

Tales of rescuing stranded motorists during harsh winters on the prairie. After he sold the station’s tow truck, Harold and crew would use the bulk fuel truck to pull vehicles from ditches and snowdrifts along Highway 19. He recalls upwards of 20 travelers once waiting out a snowstorm at the station. Another time four stranded motorists played poker until closing time, at which time they were dropped off at snow homes in town, houses with empty beds. This, all before the days of snow gates installed to close the highway.

He sold snow tires and changed oil, washed cars in the east stall of the garage, delivered bulk gas and fuel and even fertilizer (for awhile). Pumped gas. Fixed whatever needed fixing. At one time he employed as many as four mechanics.

Open every day until 9 p.m. Open until noon on Sunday.

Was it a better life than farming? For awhile, Harold says. Before gas prices shot up and it took a lot of money to buy a tanker full of gas to operate his business. Good before three other places in town started selling batteries. Good before the fertilizer plant added gas pumps. Good before car washes.

Decades later, Harold accepted a job as maintenance worker for the City of Vesta, leaving his middle son to run the station. When Randy found a job in nearby Marshall several months later, the station closed. That was in 1991.

Today the service station is gone, replaced by another automotive business. The old building that housed the station was moved west of town and remodeled into a second home.

Oh, the stories The Log Cabin, built in 1937 and for decades operated as a “beer joint”, Harold’s moniker, not mine, could tell. “It was a pretty wild place…with drunks and fights,” my uncle remembers. “It was a pretty rough place for awhile.”

He also recalls delivering gas for City Service to the tavern, which had a single pump. There’d never be money for the gas Harold brought. But the guy who delivered beer had no trouble collecting payment.

I’d like to see The Log Cabin again, the place where I accompanied my dad, boarded the Greyhound, later filled my 1976 Mercury Comet with gas.

I’d imagine, too, the beer drinkers who packed the former tavern, crammed into booths in the area where my uncle had his office and front counter. I’d think about that and all those stranded travelers once waiting out a prairie blizzard at Harold’s Service.

BONUS PHOTO:

The gas can in my brother Brian's garage that my siblings and I covet because we attended Wabasso High School. Our mascot was a white Rabbit.

My siblings and I covet this gas can in our brother Brian’s garage because we attended Wabasso High School. Our mascot was a white Rabbit.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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25 Responses to “Memories of my uncle’s service station in Vesta, Minnesota”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    Memories of bygone eras. Shared with many but only understood by those who experienced similar. I love the smells of the old filling stations, the clatter of tools used then dropped to the concrete in favor of another needed item. Attendants who took pride in total ‘service’, incentives to purchase (every type of glassware imaginable)……ahhh, yes. Memories. Thanks so much for the warm stroll down the lane leading to the pleasant past. Hugs…….

  2. Love this. The local Kwik Trip will likely never produce such stories.

  3. Love the variety of those gas station, bus stop, tavern memories! – and the pictures are great!

  4. I think you have enough material here for a novel! I love the old stories about stranded travelers which shows so much humanity and connection. There doesn’t seem to be time in people’s lives for those kinds of connections to unfold anymore….and cell phones allow us to be whisked away much more quickly if we get stranded anywhere, both in actuality and by virtue of talking to someone else rather than the people right in front of us. The photos are wonderful (again!).

    • The thought has crossed my mind that I should compile some of my posts into a published collection. And that has been suggested to me by others. But where to start, how to proceed…

      Years ago, long after I had left home, the Schwan’s man and two neighbors were stranded on my home farm during a blizzard. And when I was in junior and senior high school, we rural students had designated “snow homes,” places in town where we could stay if the buses could not get us home during bad winter weather. I never had to use my snow home, but some of my younger siblings had to stay overnight in town.

  5. Ahhh the memories of small town living and its people who make up the community! Loving your post – great photos – thanks so much for sharing:) Happy Weekend!

  6. Lovely images and memories! I wish that the old didn’t always have to be torn down for the new.

  7. What an interesting post, filled with history and memories. Things were difficult, but so much better in many ways, back then.

  8. Beth Ann Says:

    I love those memories of small days gone by places like this. When we lived on the Ohio River in Hannibal, OH there was a gas station right across the road from us exactly like this. I have faint memories of going in it although I am sure my brothers have more accurate memories. Lovely post, Audrey. I almost missed it—off my reading schedule this week.

  9. Jackie Says:

    Oh such good memories of days gone by, What a great idea for your Brother Brian to restore those gas pump….all shiny and new looking!


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