Historical photo recalls service stations’ glory days

Pictures freeze a moment in time and can be great memory-joggers even decades later. We observed that here a couple of weeks ago and that notion was reinforced only days later by a reader.

I’m always been enamored with vintage pictures, whether they are in a calendar, magazine article or a book. The historical society’s new calendar is a real gem, packed full of cars and earlier surroundings in the Merced area.

The October picture in the Merced County Historical Society’s 2014 calendar brought back vivid memories for Calvin Penrod Jr., of Chowchilla, whose father operated a service station at 16th and G streets for many years.

The black-and-white photo from 1959 shows the Texaco station with all its gingerbread lettering and details, including lighted glass globes on top of the gas pumps, an oil can dispenser in the service median, a Coca-Cola machine in front of the office and a late-1940s Chevrolet sedan parked to the side.

Penrod says his father owned the service station from 1948 to 1963, and that he also owned two service stations in Marin County, one in Chowchilla and one later in Santa Rosa. In one month he pumped 165,000 gallons of gas, which was a record.

The 1948 Chevy pictured belonged to a Merced couple and the car was driven by the wife, who was a legal secretary in town. They babied it and insisted on weekly oil changes. Penrod Sr. eventually convinced the doting couple that a monthly oil change was more than sufficient. The car had a beige-colored body and a mocha-colored top.

Penrod Jr. said his dad made him work at the station during his high school years. The station was a regular hangout for youthful members of the Valve Burners car club. All across the country, gas stations drew young people who would share stories and watch as customers’ cars were repaired or refueled.

Those teenagers who cruised the downtown area would stop by the station for a couple of gallons of gas while lingering at several drive-in restaurants on the “circuit.” In 1954, regular Fire Chief gas cost 24.9 cents a gallon and Sky Chief ethyl, or premium, was 29.9 cents a gallon.

The station was a very busy place and six people normally worked filling customers’ cars with gas. That’s long before self-service became the norm.

West 16th Street was Highway 99 until the early 1960s and a very busy thoroughfare. When Highway 99 bypassed 16th, the road suddenly got very quiet and ghostly, even on the day the freeway was dedicated, Penrod recalls.

He remembers that his father’s station was always spotless, including the restrooms.

It’s not visible from the calendar picture, but there was a red neon archway sign near the intersection at the time that has long since vanished.

There are a number of calendars, books and online websites dedicated to vintage service stations. Auto enthusiasts often embrace petroliana, collecting vintage gas pumps and lighted globes, oil cans and signs that can be quite expensive and desirable now.

Back in the day, service stations had charm and character. These days, filling stations seem more antiseptic and spartan.

I wish I could beam myself back and see that Texaco station firsthand. Since that’s obviously not possible, the next best thing is a picture in a calendar and the recollections of someone who was there.