This unobtrusive 24-foot-by-40-foot white building in the heart of Shop Springs wears a tin roof for a cap. About a century old, it's not unlike the myriad other aging structures that sit dormant beside two-lane blacktops across the U.S.A.
Millions of motorists drive past these hollow structures every day, and perhaps a few ask themselves, "I wonder what that was once upon a time?"
The answer for this spot on the side of Highway 70 halfway between Lebanon and Watertown is the Shop Springs Service Station and Shop Springs Post Office.
"This was a full-bore service station. At one time they serviced 12-13 cars a day. Dad had a full-time mechanic and two part-time. The old shop was not too big, but it could hold two, three or four Model As," said Hugh Bass Jr., 68, son of the man who ran the station across five decades and served as postmaster for 32 years.
In the late 1920s, the building was moved about 100 feet south, likely in 1929 when the road was widened. In the early 1930s, Mr. Bass bought the station from his uncle, Bernard McMillan, for $1,500. The deal included the house and yard next door, a plot of ground next to the Baptist church, and, to sweeten the transaction, a milk cow was thrown in for good measure.
At the station, also an authorized Ford service center and Goodyear Tire dealership. Mr. Bass sold Esso Gasoline in two flavors, regular Esso and high test. He added a high-octane pump in the mid-1960s.
Daughter recalls G.I.s
Hugh Jr.'s sister, Lynda Bass Patton, 79, treasures warm memories of the place, noting, "I had all the candy and ice cream I wanted to eat. Daddy always said, 'I won't make any profit here.'
"When I was older, I pumped gas and worked in there selling candy. My mother [Lyda Hamilton Bass] helped with the post office and did a lot of the bookwork for him."
She fondly recollects the era of the World War II maneuvers in the early 1940s as soldiers bivouacked near the back of their property. She remembers one hot night when her father handed a long string of G.I.s cold Coca-Colas straight from his ice box, even popping the bottle caps off for the parched soldiers.
She said the business was "a community center of sorts" and a help center as well.
"If someone called during the night or knocked on the door needing help with their car, he would go out to fix a flat tire or get what they needed," she said.
"He was a little lenient. He didn't stay on people who owed him money. He was a deacon at Shop Springs Baptist Church, and I can remember when we had a revival at church, and if they had a day service, then Daddy would shut down the service station and post office for an hour or so.
"We said, 'Can he do that?' And he said, 'Yes, I can,' and he would put a sign up saying when he'd be back and that he was at church service, and people understood."
Station did triple duty
Mr. Bass's compact empire was divided into three areas: the garage, which featured an enclosed wooden battery room for storing battery acid; the filling station office, which held car parts and snacks and cold drinks; and, set in the back left corner, a wooden cage that represented the post office.
Before Mr. Bass became postmaster, the post office sat less than a quarter mile down the highway inside a grocery store. When he took over, the 6-foot-by-10-foot cage was removed from the store and relocated to the service station office. Mr. Bass could enter through a small door and stand behind the counter where he sold stamps and money orders and handled official post office business.
The ancient post office cage remains in place and retains about 50 cubbyholes. Above the slots are tacked tiny, faded slips of paper that reveal the names of local residents who came to fetch their mail, names like Coffee, Turner, Hewgley and Bryan.
One other souvenir of the old filling station squats inside the office, a blown safe left disabled by a robber who broke in one night in the early 1950s and dynamited the safe and stole a stash of silver dollars. The crook, Rubin "Tennessee" Wooten, was later nabbed in Kentucky.
Son pitched in
Hugh Jr. began helping his dad pump gas out in front at the age of 6 or 7. By his teen years he was repairing vehicles in the garage. He never received any pay for his labors, but his father later helped him buy a 1965 Pontiac GTO so he could commute to college.
In the meantime, he enjoyed all the free candy and soft drinks he wanted. He said the office held an icy, water-filled Coca-Cola cooler with bottles of such beverages as Pepsi, RC, Coke, Double Cola, Nehi Orange and Nehi Grape. In the large candy counter lay sugary confections like Baby Ruths, Snickers, Dubble Bubble Gum, Butter Fingers, Hershey Chocolate Bars, Red Hots and jaw breakers, true temptation to local tots.
Hugh Jr. said that operating the post office was his father's "key thing."
Train delivered mail
The mail was delivered and picked up by train, the Tennessee Central, up through late 1950s. Hugh Jr. and his sister often would walk to the old depot beside the tracks and retrieve the mail bag.
"If it was a bag of plain mail, the train would slow down to five or 10 miles per hour, and they would pitch it off. The train would stop to unload if they were carrying something like a box of 50 chickens," he said.
Mr. Bass opened the service station at 5:30 in the morning six days a week.
"It was a gathering place for locals to hang out, mostly in the afternoon," recalled Hugh Jr. "Guys would get off work, go home and eat a bit of supper and come back, and most nights there would be at least eight to 10 guys sitting there. They'd stay until 7:30 or 8 o'clock."
Hugh Jr. helped his father around the station until he was 18, and after his dad had a heart attack in 1968, he returned to run the station and the post office.
"At 21 years old, I was probably one of the youngest assistant postmasters they ever had. When I came back, I shut the door at 6 p.m. I guess I was the one who broke the atmosphere, the chain of the old way of sitting around," said Hugh Jr., who taught school for several years in Lebanon, then went into the auto parts business with John Freeman and later wound down his career as a sign technician for the city of Gallatin."
Closing it down
"In 1972, Daddy retired from the Post Office. He hated to give it up, but he knew he had to. The [U.S.] Post Office already had been considering closing it. He kept on selling gas after that for a couple of years and retired from the store in 1974. When he retired, he said, 'I'm not gonna let anybody use it.'"
True to his word, the structure has remained closed. Mr. Bass died in 1984.
Shop Springs resident Clayton Hallums moved to the community in 1944 when he was 7 years old.
He recollected, "Mr. Hugh Bass was one of the finest fellows who ever lived. He delivered gas to people who had run out down the road and never charged 'em. That used to be a thriving business. They changed a lot of tires there. Mr. Austin Lea was the mechanic."
Hallums noted that Mr. Bass also operated a coal business, and that the coal was delivered by the Tennessee Central. From time to time, a full carload would be left on a side track beside the depot.
"The neighbors called Mr. Bass and would order a ton of coal. My dad let me take the mule and wagon, and I'd load it up and deliver the coal," said Hallums, who might receive a quarter or 50 cents per delivery.
Grandson cherishes memories
When he was 3, Tony Patton, Mr. Bass' grandson, moved from Watertown with his parents into his grandfather's house beside the service station.
"I got an education here. I basically lived out there [at the station] and helped out and got to know all the old loafers and whittlers and see Granddad firsthand dealing with people," said Patton, 56.
"All the old men called me Tinker cause I was tinkering around all the time. I pumped a lot of gas, fixed tires, loaded the Coke machine and sorted Coke bottles before the Coke man got there. I had all-you-can-eat snacks, ice cream, soft drinks 24/7. That was good enough for me. The ice cream in the cooler was Perfection, and it was good."
Besides his lip-smacking memories, he recalls the sterling character exemplified by his grandfather.
"Granddaddy had a tremendous reputation for honesty. He was a very quiet man, extremely humble, very religious and probably one of the best Christian men I ever been around. We all try, but he lived it every day.
"I never heard my granddad use a curse word. I never ever once heard one a negative comment about my granddad from anyone anywhere. He was tremendously generous. He believed in resting on Sunday. He didn't do anything but go to church and have lunch and visit with family and visit those in the hospital and shut-ins. He was just an awesome example for me as a child."
What next for historic structure?
Tony's parents hold the deed to the old service station/post office. Chances are good that one day it will be passed down to him and his sister. What does he think will become of this place that served the local population as a gathering place from the Depression Era and trying years of World War II up through the waning days of the Vietnam War?
He answered, "I'll do everything in my power to maintain it and wouldn't mind at some point to dress it back up again a bit and make it like it used to look. Worse-case scenario: I'll always preserve the cage and the post office.
"I don't have any bad memories from there," said Tony, offering quite a tribute to his grandfather, a man who played the role of mechanic, postmaster, good neighbor and good Samaritan to those who walked through his service station door.