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

 

Appreciating the corner gas station March 14, 2012

THERE’S NOTHING PARTICULARLY appealing about filling up with gas these days. Pull up to a generic convenience store/gas station, pump your own gas and then kiss a sizable wad of your money goodbye.

It wasn’t always that way, though, either in gas prices or service or the cookie-cutter service stations.

Maybe because my Uncle Harold once owned a gas station/garage in my hometown of Vesta, I am drawn to former full-service gas stations, specifically those angled into a street corner. My uncle’s station was neither angled nor on a street—his sat along Minnesota State Highway 19.

Most old-style corner service stations have long closed, although the buildings still exist, either vacant or re-purposed. They possess a nostalgic and architectural charm that spells magic.

Just look at this fine example in Morristown, a town of about 1,000 residents in Rice County, Minnesota, within 10 miles of my Faribault home.

The old corner style gas station and vintage Standard Oil sign on Morristown's main street.

For years I’ve passed by this building, but never once stopped to photograph it. I have recently come to realize that such a plan of inaction, of thinking I’ll photograph a scene when I have more time, is unwise. Waiting equals only regret when a structure is torn down or falls into a rotting heap.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon at Nordmeier Brothers, in business since 1926. The sturdy brick building with the brilliant blue doors appears, from the exterior, to be structurally-stable. And although the old gas pumps have long been abandoned, Nordmeier still operates a garage and sells used vehicles.

I love how the vintage Standard Oil sign reflects on the windows of the garage late on a sunny afternoon in March. There's a modern Mobil station/convenience store next door.

Old, abandoned gas pumps at Nordmeier.

There’s much to be said for long-standing family businesses like Nordmeier Brothers that have anchored small-town Main Streets and stuck it out through economic difficulties. Not that Morristown is devoid of vacant buildings—it certainly isn’t.

But at least it has this lovely corner gem of a building, a place that hearkens to years past and the memories of full service gas stations and lower, much lower, gas prices.

I'm an appreciator of vintage signs, too. I hope the folks of Morristown value this sign.

It takes awhile to read all the window and door signage, a small-town art form of its own.

You can pick out a vehicle right here at Nordmeier Brothers in downtown Morristown. The business once was a Chevrolet dealer until GM began pulling franchises several years ago.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling