Baby Boomer Memories: Long gone are neighborhood gas stations

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After World War II, families faced a life of prosperity, and a sure sign was the acquisition of a family automobile.

Most new cars were still stick shift with a clutch and had a push-button starter, running boards under the doors and a small triangular side window in front of the hand-cranked side window. Air conditioning, turn signals, seat belts and air bags were unheard of, and, if lucky, a car had an AM radio attached to an antenna near the hood.

Automobiles have really transformed in the past 70 years, with many families having more than one vehicle, and these are much safer and more fuel-efficient.

As baby boomers, we have also experienced a big change in what we called gas stations.

When you'd drive up to gas pumps in these stations and would cross over a thin hose on the ground, a bell would ring in the building. Out would come a smiling attendant, often in uniform with cap, and he'd ask if you'd want a fill-up. As the gas was pumping, he'd clean the front and rear windows, check under the hood for oil and water levels and then the tire pressure. Water and air were free. Purchases were with cash, as credit cards didn't exist until 1958.

Some stations gave trade stamps, free gifts like towels or dishes, free maps and other giveaways. Esso (now Exxon-Mobil) advertised "put a tiger in your tank" and, in the 1960s, these stations gave small fake tiger tails to hang out of the gas flap.

In 1950, Pittsfield had 70 stations — usually named for the owner: Bob's, Pete's, Harry's and Don's. There were three stations named Bill's two blocks apart on Tyler Street. Others used the owner's surname, and some just the brand of gas, in their names. Almost every station also did lubrication and auto repairs and had a hydraulic lift or a grease pit in one of their bays. A small office was filled with car parts or supplies, and nearby would be a pay phone and vending machine for soda.

Most of today's brands of fuel were also popular in the '50s and '60s, but long gone are Amoco, Atlantic, Sterling, Tydol and a few others that had a local presence.

Gas price wars were common between stations located at three or four corners of an intersection. (I recall paying as low as 18.9 cents a gallon as a teen in 1962.) Prices always ended in nine-tenths of a cent. Small gas stations thrived for years, and even in 1965, there were still over 50 of them in Pittsfield.

Then the first big fuel crisis came along in 1973, with shortages in U.S. production and drastically increased prices by the Mideast oil-producing countries. Gas prices soared from under 40 cents to over a dollar or more a gallon. Most ma and pa gas stations could not survive and closed. The big fuel companies began to open their own shops, and now customers had to pump their own gas. Gone were the other services typical of gas stations.

In the past three decades, cars evolved with more fuel efficiency, environmental controls, safety devices, use of unleaded gas, computerized mechanisms and more. And in the past 20 years, we began to see the evolution of the convenience store chains with groceries, confections, snacks, household items and, oh, yes, self-serve gas pumps.

No more free maps, and stations even began charging to fill tires with air. We have to clean our own windows, pump our own gas, and no more gifts and trade stamps. Just checking the yellow pages, I could only find about 20 places in Pittsfield that sold gasoline, and most were convenience stores.

I really miss that tiger tail on my car, but my local service station now has microwaveable corn dogs I never had when filling up as a teen.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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