Changes wrought by cars to our lives over the last 100 years
Styles and trends change every few decades. In the 1950's and 60's fast-food drive-ins were the craze. At the turn of the 21st Century it was coffee shops – and on practically every corner you could find a Starbucks, Dutch Brothers, or Coffee People shop. During the past five years it's been surprising to see the influx of cannabis shops and all the new condo/apartment high-rises replacing what were once small single-level homes.
But in this issue of THE BEE, we're going back further in time – to 1908.
It was Henry Ford who changed the fabric of the land in 1908; he produced the first car affordable for the common man, the Model T Ford, still the second most produced car model of all time. (Number one is the VW Beetle.) And that innovation introduced the car culture that was a dominant theme in the Twentieth Century in America – and certainly was, here, in Inner Southeast Portland. Let's browse through the decades…
While $800 for a Model T still seemed an exorbitant price for the average wage earner a century ago, it was an attainable goal. Every head of the household dreamed of one day owning an automobile for faster travel to work, visits to relatives far away, and taking the family on weekend excursions.
Following Henry's lead, car repair shops and gas stations soon proliferated across the land, and were to be found along major intersections and many busy street corners, and Inner Southeast was no exception.
More than 122 gas stations were scattered around Portland in the mid 1920's, with the east side of Portland being the most advantageous spot to put one. Commercial property was less expensive here, and vacant land was more readily available for oil companies to acquire. Huge gasoline tanks had to be buried underground to build a gas station, and the sparse countryside was a more convenient place to build one than in the crowded downtown.
Weekend excursions to Mt Hood or along the newly opened Columbia Gorge River Highway were favorite pastimes for motorists, and a stop at the local service station on the east side of the river was a must, before starting out.
Besides dispensing fuel, "service stations" were equipped with a host of other necessities for motorists. Services included tire inspection, headlight adjustments, battery charging, welding, free water for the radiator, storage for your car and towing any vehicles stuck in the mud, since most roads were unpaved at the time. Some repair shops and gas stations even had cans of paint to offer do-it-yourselfers who wanted to touch up their car (in most cases, they only had to have black paint on hand). Cars were constantly breaking down along the roadside, and since few motorists knew how to care for their car – let alone know how to drive them – trained mechanics were ready to drive out to the countryside to rescue stranded motorists.
Early service stations, while owned and run by independent dealers, were often known by the company name or product they represented. In the Woodstock neighborhood, there was the Signal Station at 41st and Woodstock Boulevard, or the Mobil Station across the way. Carl's Texaco was at 42nd, and Fred's "Flying A" was on 44th. The Texaco Oil Company was identified with the slogan, "You can trust your car to the man with the star". There were many gas stations along a ten block section of Woodstock Boulevard.
Other service stations and repair shops were identified by the name of its street or the neighborhood: The Sellwood Garage, at 17th and Tacoma; Tacoma Auto Electric. "Westmoreland Service Station" was on Milwaukie Avenue at Rex Street.
Once the owner of a service station gained the trust of the community by the quality of his work or his longevity in the area, his place of business could be identified by his own name. Neighbors might suggest to others that if you needed good tires you should stop by "Phil's Texaco" on Tolman. Or, "we only patronize 'Hatch's Chevron' at 13th in Sellwood."
In Sellwood, the intersections at 17th and 13th along Tacoma Street had numerous car repair shops and service stations for the traveler's desire. Those living in Eastmoreland and Westmoreland often stopped at the Auto Community Station at Bybee and Milwaukie; or Lee's Union Service Station at the corner of Glenwood.
Powell Boulevard in the Brooklyn community was a busy throughway that many commuters used even in the 1920's. Traffic along Powell was sparse, until the opening of the Ross Island Bridge in 1926 suddenly connected residents to the west side and gave access to amenities downtown. The Brooklyn Auto Garage and Wiebe and Miller Auto Company were a few of the first auto specialty shops to open in the area then.
Travel increased trifold along Powell due to the bridge – but, in the tradeoff, the Brooklyn neighborhood suffered the loss of a quarter of its residential housing. Entire houses had to be moved or razed to accommodate the extension of Powell west to the new bridge. Brooklyn's city central (a major stop on the streetcar line) was completely lost as Powell was constructed down the middle of the commercial district.
New car repair shops were opened along Milwaukie Avenue on both the north and south sides of Powell. Commuters had their choice of gas stations when they were stuck in traffic at the Southern Pacific Railroad crossing at 17th street. Before the underpass was installed and Powell Street widened in the 1970's, motorists spent minutes, if not occasionally hours, delayed on both sides of the street by passing (or completely stopped) freight trains.
Longtime Brooklyn residents might still remember the Golden Eagle Station, the Richfield Station, or – a tad further east – the porcelain sign of the Flying Red Horse, signifying Mobil Gas.
In 1930, Repp J. Horner opened a Texaco Station at 21st and Powell, on the south side of the street. Located next door to a Chuck's Diner (which is now the Lottsa Luck Tavern), Repp was able to gather business from late night drivers. The Texaco Station stayed open quite late to accommodate patrons leaving after dining, or workers starting their night shift at the Brooklyn streetcar and railroad shops.
The streetcar garages were built at the end of Center Street and 17th, and many employees in the industrial section of Brooklyn worked around the clock. Repp was a mainstay of the community for twenty years – pumping gas, repairing carburetors, and fixing the crankshafts on numerous vehicles – until he turned the business over to Andy Meshke in the 1950's. That was the start of what many may recognize today as Andy's Repair Shop, but back then it was known as Andy's Super Service.
Auto shop owners in those days had to cater to the major oil companies from which they leased their property. These companies encouraged station owners like Andy's to offer as many automotive products to customers as possible. Shell, Texaco, Union 76, and Standard manufactured their own brands of motor oil with the company logo on the side of the can, and these were usually stacked, pyramid style, within view of customers when they pulled in for gas.
Other services included free street maps and, sometimes a set of glasses or dishes if you filled up your tank with their special high-performance gas. It was all a part of the marketing effort to attract motorists in what was then the very competitive gasoline business.
S & H Green Stamps were offered by many service stations to motorists who bought gas or other products; customers would paste the green stamps they collected into paper booklets, for redemption in exchange for household goods and small appliances at the nearest S & H Green Stamp Store.
Ads in the local paper reminded consumers to visit their local service station and have their brakes checked or the oil changed regularly. Billboards showed the smiling face of a gas attendant servicing a vehicle while wearing a company hat and logo, starched white overalls, and sometimes even a bow tie.
When you drove into a gas station you were often treated like royalty! Old-timers might remember the sound of the bell when they drove over a rubber cord stretched across the entrance to a gas station – that was what alerted a gas attendant that you'd arrived, and they'd rush out to to fill the tank, check the water level in the radiator, and then show the driver the thin metal oil dip stick from their car to decide if they needed another quart of oil. They usually washed the customer's windshield after all of the checkups, too. Young drivers might think I am making all this up, but older readers know that I am not.In an interview with the current owner of Andy's Repair Shop on Powell, Rick Lachney told me of the skill his uncle once showed him as an auto mechanic: White uniforms were still being issued to gas attendants, and while working under the mentorship of his uncle, Larry Campbell, Rick proudly boasted that, "My 'Uncle Boots' helped me with my first brake job. After he was finished, there wasn't a spot of grease on his clean uniform!"
Rick, like many other young men growing up in the 1970's learned how to maintain a car by taking classes at his local high school. In his case, that was in Redding, California. He spent most of his free time under the hood of his green 1957 Chevy V6 in those days. This was the golden era of fast and powerful cars, when teens were on the hunt for vehicles with big size and big power for big fun. Rick replaced his 6-cylinder engine with a V8, and headed out up the road to Vancouver, Washington, after graduation.
So it was here that he teamed up with Uncle Boots (an appropriate nickname for a mechanic who spent most of his time working underneath cars) to operate the Union 76 station on S.W. Jefferson in downtown Portland. That experience hooked Rick for life on troubleshooting engines and solving difficult breakdowns that baffled most novice repairmen.
When Chuck Greenough purchased Andy's Gas Station and Repair Shop in Brooklyn, he hired ace mechanic Rick in 1983, and it wasn't long before Rick worked up to head foreman, and eventually became the owner of Andy's Auto Repair. Fuel was still available from the gas pumps in front until the 1990's, but the profit margin on selling gas was low, and hiring responsible gas attendants took up too much of Rick's time and patience. He decommissioned the gas tanks, and had then filled with concrete.
During the weekends, and sometimes after high school, Rick's daughter Stephanie occupied the vacant chair in front of Rick's desk at the shop. Bored with watching the mechanics dashing about the station looking for parts or crawling around the garage floor, Stephanie volunteered to answer calls, make appointments, and drive over to auto supply shops to pick up spare parts for the crew. As Stephanie puts it, "I just wanted to help out, and I did a little bit of everything."
One afternoon Stephanie confronted her dad about her frustration with the office job. "You know, I have all of these people calling in and asking what's wrong with my car, and I don't have an answer!" She told her father, "You need to teach me how to work on cars."
Just like Uncle Boots was to him, Rick became a mentor to his own daughter, and he started by giving her the first toolbox he had when he started working his way up to an auto expert. Stephanie has spent the last 3½ years working at the auto shop, learning the ropes, and slowly filling up the tool box. She quit her job at Providence Hospital, and her dad Rick convinced her to work full time at Andy's Auto Supply and Repair Shop. With a dab of grease as makeup on her face and nose, Stephanie sums it up best with, "This is my time with my dad."
It's been said that to be happy in life you need to find a good doctor, dentist, hairdresser, plumber, and auto mechanic. As the independent repair shops begin to fade away, Rick and his daughter Stephanie and the crew at Andy's Auto Supply and Repair Shop still provide dependable service and will for years to come.
And what of the car culture itself? Times change. And today there are many who say the new generation is not interested in cars – viewing them only as expensive transportation, and completely optional. Apartment houses in Southeast are allowed by the city to be built with little or no parking available, for this reason. Public transportation and rentals of various types of vehicles are thought now to be the way to go. And indeed they have their value.
But, around those new apartment houses we regularly see cars parked on the street with new-car stickers. Despite the convenience of being able to rent cars, bicycles, and even electric scooters at the curb, personal vehicles are everywhere, and they are still selling. There are far fewer gas stations these days, and the services they competitively offered have dwindled also, but there are still gas stations.
Times change, but the convenience and joy of owning your own vehicle, and the personal freedom of having your own car to go where you want, when you want, does not seem yet to have disappeared, and remains part of life here in Inner Southeast Portland.