Q: Greg I remember many years ago you did a column on your memories of growing up in the 1950s, working at Sears & Roebuck as a teenager, and also those Montgomery Ward and Sears Auto Centers. I’m not computer savvy so I’m wondering if you could re-visit some of that column as it brought back so many great memories growing up for me, too. Thanks much, Gary L., retired and living near Columbus, Ohio.
A: Gary I’m more than happy to oblige and add more as that column originated from a question from reader Dan York from Pottstown, Pa., back in 2017.
Here we are in 2021, and as I re-read the answer I failed to mention many other major nostalgic memories all tied to cars or riding in my dad’s cars that I enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s.
I clearly remember the new four-lane highways and turnpikes that were growing everywhere, and with them came business expansions like Howard Johnson’s restaurants, Stuckey’s Pecans, Snacks and Gasoline, Dairy Queen, and more and more gas stations than ever. The first McDonald’s I ever went to was in New Brunswick, N.J., with my aunt Rose and uncle John in their brand new ’60 Impala sport coupe somewhere along Rte. 18, heading towards Old Bridge, N.J. The place was packed and everything was “order at the window” as no seating was available yet. Most were checking my uncle’s blue and white Impala.
Cities Service gas centers, around since the 1930s but never having seen one, popped up at the service plazas on the turnpikes and were very impressive. And in the heyday of home service ice cream, it’s hard to forget the original Good Humor Ford trucks and then soon to follow Mr. Softie trucks. Charles Chips had their fleet of Chevy panel trucks and to this day is the only potato chip I know of that became famous because of home delivery. I still have my Charles Chips can and a Buddy L Charles Chip truck. Charles Chips ceased home delivery in 1975.
Those Sears and Montgomery Ward stores were great, too. Dan noted he remembered that the toy departments were great to see at Christmas time and the hobby department was filled with 1/24 scale cars and other models. He also noted that his dad owned a Sears Elgin boat that he learned to water ski hooked behind. I’ll add here you could buy a Henry-J automobile at some Sears stores in 1952 and 1953. It was called the Allstate and came with special badges and hood ornament, Sears auto parts like spark plugs, Allstate tires and some extra interior conveniences.
Dan knew from previous columns that I worked in the paint department at Sears in Vineland, N.J. in 1968 and he worked at both S.S. Kreske’s (a forerunner of Kmart) and at the Kmart in Burlington, N.J. He also noted that both Sears and Kmart in his town of Pottstown, Pa. had already closed in 2017.
The recollections I still have center on the Sears & Roebuck located at Landis Ave. and the circle of Rte. 47, in Vineland, N.J. When we relocated there as a family in 1957-1958, Sears was the “in-store” to visit regardless of need. I remember many times my parents shopping while my dad’s car received an oil change at the Sears Auto Center.
So be it those oil changes, a set of tires, tools, a complete tune-up, a Ted Williams baseball glove or JC Higgins bicycle, Sears had it all. Many Sears of the 1950 and 1960 decades had a Hires Root Beer stand in the middle of the store where they served hot dogs on a bread type semi-toasted roll. Sears had a great toy section, and the holidays were my favorite time to visit Sears and await its spectacular Sears Christmas catalog that arrived in everyone’s mail.
Sears aside, the gas stations of the era are still ingrained in my head. There was so much activity back then as gas pump attendants were in full uniform, many with bow ties. There was always a friendly hello and “Happy Motoring” at the end if it was an Esso fill-up. The gas attendants back then would clean your car windshield, check the oil and even make sure the tire pressures were correct regardless of weather. The Flying A, Sinclair, Esso, Gulf and Texaco stations stand out in my mind, as does Sunoco and later American, the latter the first to offer a no-lead gasoline before government mandates.
Unlike today’s “Food Mart” gas stations, the service stations of yesteryear were fascinating places for young and old. From engines being changed, transmissions rebuilt to tires mounted and balanced, I loved everything about a gas station and I asked a lot of questions. As for snacks, most gas stations back then had Coca-Cola, Nehi Orange, Hires Root Beer or Pepsi Cola soda products. They also had to have a nice lineup of potato chips and pretzels and perhaps five or six selections of candy bars, my favorites being Skybar, Chunky, or Sugar Daddy. Oh yes, can’t forget those Planters salted peanuts and Lance Nip-Chee crackers at 5-cents a pack.
Sadly, as the years pass on and auto manufacturers further enhance today’s modern, computer controlled cars, the service stations we knew growing up have nearly disappeared. The few independent garages that survive are thanks mostly to dedicated baby boomer consumers although some of the younger generations have found out how good these little service garages are.
Still, with high tech cars advancing more every year, and electric the future of our vehicles, it’s just a matter of time before more of these wonderful independents shut their doors. They still, however, serve as a great place for your collector car to be properly serviced, as the small independents still know how to setup a Holley carburetor, fix the water pump or replace a broken rocker arm; and a new camshaft for a 1966 Chevelle SS396, sure, no problem.
Thanks for rekindling even more memories and your kind words Gary.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist. He welcomes reader questions or comments on auto nostalgia and collector cars at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840.)