All Over The Map: Is this the oldest old-school service station in Washington?
Our tank is full of service station history in the Pacific Northwest, from favorite nostalgic spots that may no longer even dispense gas, all the way back to a Seattle location that in 1907 may have been the first service station anywhere in the world.
Dan Ward lives in the Portland area, but he grew up in College Place, a small town next to Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. Ward contacted KIRO Radio recently because he believes his family-owned business in College Place is “the oldest continuously operating, old school, true full-service service station in the Pacific Northwest, operating at the same location, by the same family.”
College Place was named in the 19th century for what was originally Walla Walla College. The institution was founded by Seventh Day Adventists in 1892; it’s now known as Walla Walla University, and has about 1,500 students. College Place incorporated as its own city in 1946.
The Ward family’s service station is called Beeline, which is an old brand name for petroleum products and a network of independent retailers which operated mostly in the mountain states. The brand died off a long time ago, and every other Beeline station either went away or changed their name.
“My Mom and Dad operated as a team, with her keeping the books, and a lot of the important behind the scene operations,” Ward wrote in an email, “while my Dad was the perfect out-going front man for a service station in a small town, not unlike ‘Mayberry,’ where he played the perfect ‘Andy’ who was a service station owner, rather than the town sheriff!”
The Beeline is still in business 63 years later at the same location, in the original building with all the full-service amenities and a half-dozen certified mechanics on duty. Dan Ward is proud that his family’s business has not become one of those mini-mart stations where coffee machines and racks of potato chips have replaced the hydraulic lifts.
“My dad refused to sell the place, when his retirement years came, because for his love of the place, and kept at it, due to the fact that all us kids had married, and moved to the big cities!” Ward wrote. “He died last March, and as the executor of the estate, and per his will, I am now responsible for its operations, which are quite brisk and thriving, I might add!”
And, while the average price of gas in 1958 was about 30 cents – or just under 2 bucks nowadays adjusted for inflation – Dan Ward says for Beeline customers who want it, they’ll still pump gas, wash the windows, and even check the oil and tires — no matter how much prices may fluctuate.
Ward’s mom passed away in 2014. His dad had retired and moved to the Portland area to live with Dan a few years earlier, but he still liked to visit the station with his son when he could. It clearly had been a big part of his life and identity, and the station functioned as kind of a community crossroads.
In the station’s first few decades, Dan Ward says, extending the always reliable “Mayberry” metaphor, “one could always rely on getting the latest local news, or gossip, or free advice, by just dropping in to the town’s own version of ‘Floyd’s barbershop’!”
Dan witnessed it all first hand, when he began working at the station in the 1960s as a little kid, helping out by doing things like sweeping up in the shop or the parking areas. He says his dad’s friends would show up for a daily ritual that involved chewing the fat, and “lagging,” which is a form of pitching pennies to determine who would pay for the soda pop.
“About 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning, some of his cronies would start showing up out of nowhere,” Ward said by phone last week. “It was just a slow town, slow pace, and that was his style, that type of thing, but they’d go up and they’d ‘lag’ for soda pop.”
The men would “lag,” says Ward, by tossing their nickels and dimes toward a piece of tape on the floor, to try to land the coins as close to the tape as possible.
“Whoever lost just bought the pop for everybody,” Dan Ward said.
Talking to Dan – who owns the station now and has a manager running it – you get the sense that his dad Ben was the heart and soul of the business, and the reason why it has never really changed much since its founding during the Eisenhower administration. The memory of his father might also be why Dan – who’s retired from his own separate career and nearing 70 – is still devoted to keeping the station going, though it’s no charity venture, since the business is actually stronger than ever.
“The last four years at the Beeline have consecutively been bigger and better, in both volume, and profits, than at any time over the last 63 years,” Ward wrote, “thanks to an awesome crew, and top flight general manager.”
Something else that never changed at the College Place station is the “Beeline” name. That company was big in the 1950s and 1960s, and there were once hundreds of stations branded this way. Ward says the Beeline in College Place is actually now the last of the bunch – or maybe the last of the swarm? – and Dan’s father secured legal rights to keep using the name. Ward says they’re in the midst of a full-scale renovation and really embracing the retro Beeline brand in all parts of the station, including vintage-style gas pumps with glass globes.
If you’re in the neighborhood and your fuel tank (or your history tank) is on ‘E,’ the Beeline in College Place welcomes visitors anytime, and the attendants there would be happy to fill ‘er up and get you back on the road.
Just be prepared to pay a little more than 30 cents – and probably a little more than 2 bucks, for that matter – for a gallon of gas.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or know of other old-school service stations in Washington, please email Feliks here.