Service station memories of Tukwila and Sumner
On a recent installment of All Over The Map, heard Fridays on Seattle’s Morning News, we talked about service stations from the 1960s and 1970s that seem to be disappearing and leaving very little trace. We invited listeners to let us know about examples of such stations, and received this wonderful recollection of family-run service stations in Tukwila and Sumner from Kim Foster. If you have memories or photos to share, please reach out via my contact information below. We’ll be posting more of what we’ve received later this week.
My family was in the gas station business when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. My uncle, Clayton Myhre, was the owner of a big Mobil station at the corner of West Valley Highway and Nelson in what is now Tukwila. The station was demolished to make way for an Embassy Suites hotel. The station was “classic” Mobil, with two pump islands and two service bays.
This was a high-volume location because it was at the back entrance – near the Turf Club – to Longacres horse racing track. As a kid, I pumped a lot of gas there. These were real service stations. When cars came in, a bell would ring. We always wore uniforms and would rush out to pump the gas for the customers.
As the gas was pumping, you would wash all of the windows and check the oil. The pumps dinged at each gallon so you knew when to hustle back to shut it off. It was tricky when most people just got “a bucks worth of regular.” I remember pumping gas from when I was about age 10 and needed to stand on a stool to wash the windshield.
Longacres was a big deal back then. I remember local celebrities would park at the station to avoid the traffic into the track and run down to make their Daily Double wagers. Track owner Joe Gottstein would drive the track Cadillacs down to get gas, and he always gave me a tip for getting the windows super clean.
I was also there the day Southcenter opened and no one could figure out how to get in there from the West Valley side. So my job that day was to stand at the curb and point “second light and left” all day long! Another interesting day was when they moved Mrs. Nelson’s barn from the west side of West Valley to where it now sits behind the Embassy Suites.
My family also had a big Mobil station at the corner of Wood Avenue and Main at the epicenter of Sumner. This was a spectacular example with the big lighted Mobil Pegasus logo on the building. Unfortunately, it was demolished and is now a nondescript convenience store. My first memory of this station was the old vertical-sight glass pumps which were hard to pump as a younger kid.
What is interesting about the Sumner situation is, at the time, Sumner had a population of about 3,000. Yet, in addition to our big Mobil, there was a Chevron (we called them “Standard”), a Union 76 (Remember the antenna balls?), a Texaco (“You can trust your car to the man who wears the star — the big bright Texaco star!”), an Atlantic Richfield (we called those Richfield stations – now Arco), a Shell, and a Hancock. All of these were in downtown Sumner!
Two of my family’s stations are still standing. My grandpa had a Texaco station at the corner of Portland Avenue and Fairbanks in Tacoma, near the new Puyallup Tribe casino. The station is still there, but is now just an automotive repair shop. An oddity of that location was that the service bay had a Clayton chassis dynamometer where you could run a car on rollers to achieve a perfect tune-up. There were huge electronic (as in vacuum tubes rather than transistors) consoles suspended from the ceiling to control the car while on the “dyno.”
The other station still standing that my grandpa and uncle had was at the corner of West Pioneer and 17th in Puyallup. This was a Signal station and is still standing but, again, is just an automotive repair business now.
Your description of the conversion to convenience stores certainly was a major factor in the demise of stand-alone stations. But there were other major factors. The OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s and resultant sky-rocketing of gas prices from $.25 to $.50 a gallon caused a lot of independents to sell out.
Gas-guzzling land yachts and American big block muscles cars were quickly replaced with Ford Pintos, the Chevy Vegas, and Datsuns. The oil companies, suppliers, and distributors whittled away at margins and demanded brand loyalty on low-margin tires and oil to make up for reduced gas revenues.
About the same time, President Nixon created the EPA, and stations were forced to replace underground tanks at costs that independent operators simply couldn’t afford — margins on gas were just too thin. Leaking tanks equaled bankruptcy. Cars were more reliable and needed fewer repairs, so the service bays couldn’t make up the difference. Whereas everyone had taken their cars to their local station for service, now chain-store concepts for mufflers, tires, and oil changes were robbing the service bays of their revenue.
You also talked about gumball machines. In addition to gumballs, we had lots of other vending machines. Every manner of pop machines — the chest models where you moved the bottle down a track to get it out, the vertical glass door models, and even machines that dispensed your pop in a little paper cup behind a sliding door! I remember pop being a dime — maybe a quarter in later years.
We had lots of candy machines where you would use all your might to pull a spring-loaded knob to dislodge your treasure. Candy was a dime — a bag of Planter’s Peanuts a nickel. And let’s not forget cigarettes! A lot of vending money was made thanks to that national addiction! Cigarettes were $.35 a pack. And the machines usually had a mirror on the front — I guess so you could see the wonderful effect they were having on your body.
I remember many women doing their make-up and hairspray in the cigarette machine mirror! A standard skill set among kids my age was knowing how vending machines operated, how to stock them, and rolling coins to take to the bank.
Tough times was when a “gas war” erupted and your neighboring stations would undercut each other on price. I remember when prices would drop below $.20. It was a stressful time until a truce was in place and prices returned to $.25.
One final thing, Feliks, that your article didn’t describe is the wonderful smell and sounds of the stations. There was an aromatic cornucopia of real leaded gas — the “premium” was 100 octane and referred to as “Ethyl” because it had an extra measure of tetraethyl lead. This gas smell was mixed with the odor of grease and oil, new tires, and compressed air from the service bays and it was spectacular!
The sounds included the ding-ding-ding of the bell at the pump islands, the pumps themselves whirring and dinging as each gallon ticked off, the sound of the ever-going air compressor in the back room, the whoosh as air was released from the tire machine, and the UFO-like whir of the tire balancer as it spun up to speed. Add in giving your friends rides up and down on the hoists (including leaving a few up there) and it was pretty much an American Nirvana just to be there.
In the end, Feliks, these were much more than just gas stations, more than service stations. These icons of American automotive culture were the heartbeat of the community. As much as church, the station was where you met your neighbors, got the local scoop, and kept informed. At least for my family’s stations, they also served as banks where you could cash your paycheck or get a small payday loan.
It’s sad that these epicenters of our communities are gone. The last thing we did every night was fill the bulk oil bottles, sweep the service bay floor, and clean the bathrooms. Ready for another day … and then it all just stopped.
As Johnny Cash penned, “Now most cars passed…”