Today is Sunday, August 20, 2017

The last real filling station

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Stacy White, who operates White's Service Station on Highway 70 between Carthage and Lebanon, pumps gas for motorist Calvin Bridges of Clinton, Tennessee. Stacy is the third generation of Whites to run the filling station as he follows in the steps of his father Gary and grandfather Earl. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Father and son Gary and Stacy White, left, stand in front of White's Service Station, a Smith County landmark that has served motorists across 10 decades. Besides selling gas, oil and tires, the two perform light mechanical work and repair small engines.
The floor tile in the office of White's Service Station reads 1928, the year that Earl White took over the fledgling business on Highway 70, the road which once bore the nickname "the Broadway of America."
Over the decades White's Service Station has filled the tanks of thousands of vehicles with gasoline. Most of those years the gasoline brand was Gulf. Later the name on the gas pump read BP, but for the past 10 years Pure Gasoline has been the fuel of choice. The premium gasoline sold here is ethanol free.

White's Service has pumped gasoline for 87 years

In 1928 Babe Ruth smashed 54 home runs for the New York Yankees, while Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in the cartoon "Steamboat Willie."

And the same year, at his small filling station on the side of Highway 70, almost halfway between Lebanon and Carthage, Earl White began pumping gas for 21 cents a gallon.

Today, if you pull into White's Service Station needing a fill up or just a couple of gallons of gasoline, you might be surprised that you will not have to exit your vehicle. That's because Earl White's son Gary or his grandson Stacy, just like Earl, will handle the fueling chore themselves.

Located in the Rome community, this white block garage and office with a forest green roof is one of the last real filling stations standing.

"Dad started here in 1928. The station had already been opened and was being run by the Ingram family, maybe less than a year," Gary says of the time the first White took over the business. "I been here all my life. I took over on my own in 1965 after my dad passed away."

He remembers gas selling here for 26.9 cents a gallon in the 1960s, but today it's priced at $2.69, exactly 10 times what it was 50 years ago.

"We do oil changes, tire work, sell new tires, used tires, gasoline, batteries and work on lawn mowers. We do quite a bit of small engine repair on mowers and tillers (no weed eaters, please). That's the way it's always been. Trade seems to have worked over the years. You don't bite the hand that feeds you," Gary said.

Fill 'er up with regular?

White's Service Station on Highway 70 between Carthage and Lebanon remains one of the few gas stations in Middle Tennessee where the attendant pumps the fuel for you. Hours are 7 a.m.-6 weekdays and 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays. Address: 915 Lebanon Highway. Phone: (615) 444-5881.

"I started helping when I was in high school, about 14 years old," said Stacy, who has followed in his father's shoes. The baton passed to him several years ago, and now his father helps him.

They pump gas as they have always done, but nowadays rarely wash windshields, check the oil or check tire pressure, jobs they would be glad to do, however, said Stacy, "Most of them (customers) are too busy and in a hurry."

The gas station opens at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and closes at 6 p.m. weekdays and at 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

"You never know what's gonna come through that door," said Gary. "I just help out on what I can do. Sit in that chair a lot. Wait on gas trade and help him fix mowers."

"There's no such thing as a typical day. You may do nothing or you may get busy," said Stacy, who also farms, raising cattle and hay.

This summer morning in August they sit in the office and watch the news on CNN.

"Everything's fixed, I reckon," said Stacy, who has two used lawn mowers displayed out front, a John Deere priced at $750 and a Murray for sale for $450.

"It's gotten harder all the time," Gary admitted of the difficulty of running an independent gas station in the second decade of a new millennium. "The oil companies we buy our gasoline from started opening up stations of their own and selling gasoline at under or what we paid for it."

As far how the price of gas can leap a dime or more in the blink of an eye, he says, "I got the answer: greed. The gasoline market for years was stable. We never went up more than a couple of cents, and now it's liable to change 10 cents overnight."

Gary is no fan of the global market, but sees their goal as simply serving their local market.

"At one time our business was geared toward the farming trade, but all that has dropped over the years. There was a time that Dad had a pretty good trade out of people from Livingston and Cookeville on their way to Nashville," he recollected.

The Whites' most loyal customer is likely Earl North, who decades ago worked here for the original Mr. White. "He's been buying his gas here for more than 55 years," noted Gary.

Another faithful fan was country music star Ricky Van Shelton, who owned a farm nearby for years before moving back to his home state of Virginia. Van Shelton traded with the Whites and enjoyed just hanging around and shooting the breeze.

Other than selling fuel, this no-frills, all-American gas station has nothing in common with the myriad of convenience markets you spot across the U.S. at every intersection in towns or near interstate exits. You'll find no candies, soft drinks or cigarettes for sale here. It's strictly about car care.

Gary and Stacy do pay homage to their patriarch, who set their careers in motion before they were born. An oval laid in the tiles of the office floor states the fact: White's Service Station, since 1928.

"A neighbor laid them. I traded him a set of tires to lay it about 15 years ago," said Gary.

As for the biggest change he's seen over the course of his career at one place, he answered, "I-40 happening in the '60s. It was just like a ghost town then. After it opened, the traffic left 70, but it's come back. So many people have moved back.

"You should have seen yesterday," he noted of the heavy traffic flow due to an accident on the interstate which forced many motorists to take the road less traveled.

For those who take the time to notice as they drive at a slower pace, perhaps they find delight in recognizing exactly what they are passing on the side of the highway, a rare breed, one of the last real filling stations in America.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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