In the last six months I have had two occasions when the “low tire” icon lit up on my car dashboard. I had a very low tire and I needed to air it up as soon as possible. However, I could not find a service station that offered air, either free or for sale. Fortunately, I had purchased a small gadget when plugged into the cigarette lighter allowed me to put air in my tire. That brings up the question, where has the free air gone?
Back in the late 1940s when I acquired my first bicycle, I had to learn how to maintain and repair it. Low or flat bicycle tires were quite common. I relied on a small filling station for all my repair supplies, particularly the air. Walter Jones small store had an air compressor and the air was free. Mr. Jones’ store was located on the east corner of SH147 and FM353 (the White Rock road). The building is still standing, though vacant.
Back in those days filling stations, or service stations, were abundant in San Augustine. I can recall at least ten stations inside the city limits. They all offered gasoline and motor oil for sale, and when you drove your automobile to the pumps you also received service. An attendant always checked your oil level, water level, battery, cleaned the windshield, and on occasion swept out your car with a whisk broom. Most of them could change the oil in your car, grease it, wash it, and repair a flat tire…and give free air. Many then gave you a sheet of S&H green stamps, or perhaps a cup and saucer set. Those were the good old days.
Speaking of the old days, did you know that the very first places that sold gasoline were pharmacies as a side business? The first filling station was the City Pharmacy in Wiesloch, Germany. This is where Bertha Benz refilled the tank of the first automobile on its maiden trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back in 1888.
The increase in automobile ownership after Henry Ford started to sell cars that the middle class could afford resulted in an increased demand for filling stations. The world’s first purpose built gas station was constructed in St. Louis, Missouri in 1905. The second gas station was built in 1907 by Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) in Seattle, Washington. The third station claims to be Reighard’s Gas Station in Altoona, Pennsylvania dating from 1909, and is considered the oldest existing gas station in the United States.
The first “drive in” filling station, a Gulf Refining Company store, opened to the motoring public in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 1, 1913 at Baum Blvd. and St. Clair Street. Walter’s Automotive Shop is now located at this spot as of 2013. Prior to this, automobile drivers pulled into almost any general or hardware store, or even blacksmith shop in order to fill up their tanks. On its first day of business, the Gulf filling stationed mentioned above sold 30 gallons of gasoline at .27 cents per gallon. This was also the first architect-designed station, and the first to distribute free road maps and free air.
The United States had 118,756 operating gas stations in 2007, according to the census. However, they are closing in record numbers due to severe OSHA and EPA regulations being enforced by the federal government. Very few “Mom & Pop” country service stations currently exist. Most stations that have an air compressor, charge for the air. Most do not have the necessary equipment to change a flat tire, or repair a leak in a tire. Instead, many stations combine small convenience stores selling candy, soda pop, and snacks.
Every time I drive by Mr. Walter Jones’ old grocery store/filling station I can’t help but let my mind travel back in time when I would ride my bicycle the one-half mile distance from my home to repair a flat bicycle tire, or purchase a box of .22 rifle shells for .75 cents, buy a cold RC cola with a box of peanuts to dump inside the bottle. And, the air was free.
“WHERE’S THE FREE AIR?”
BY: NEAL MURPHY
P.O. BOX 511
107 HEMLOCK STREET
SAN AUGUSTINE, TEXAS 75972