Sandy River Service Station
Troutdale, Oregon

Memoir by
Wilfred R. Franson
June 1999

Selling gas on the Columbia River Highway

I bought the Sandy River Service Station — about a half-mile east of Troutdale, Oregon, on the Columbia River Highway — for $300, which was alleged to be the value of the inventory. There was no lease or franchise to buy because the previous operator had none. The oil wholesaler was a company in Hood River, and it was to them that I paid monthly rent. I don't even remember how much the rent was. The gas station and the attached living quarters belonged to a woman named Johnson who I never met.

The gasoline and oil sold were Gilmore, then a well-known brand, noted for ads featuring racing cars and drivers. There was a character named Roscoe Turner, who traveled around in an airplane with a lion as a passenger. I don't think he sold much gasoline by his antics. "Roar with Gilmore" was one of their slogans. There was a Standard Oil station down by the Sandy River Bridge about a half mile east of my station.

On a good Saturday and Sunday I would sell some gas and oil to people from Portland who liked to drive up the Columbia and look at the spectacular scenery. I had a few local customers. I didn't get much tourist trade. In order to stimulate transient trade, the oil company sold me motor oil cheap enough to sell at 9 cents a quart, which was about all it was worth. But I used it in my 1932 Ford, and other people with oil-burners appreciated the price. The quality of the oil was not too important when the cars burned it out right away, and were almost always driven locally at low speeds. I had a big round sign that read OIL 9¢.

The building included the gas canopy and two pumps, the living quarters back of the gas station "office", and a much bigger garage next door, where a crusty French-Canadian mechanic named Al Espenel worked on cars, trucks, and tractors.

A dream of smelt prosperity

In 1939 everybody was looking forward to the smelt run, when millions of smelt threw themselves hysterically around in the Sandy River. Previous runs had brought crowds of eager fishermen equipped with buckets. Tales of previous smelt runs, attended by thousands of people catching smelt and spending lots of money, did not come true; the smelt did not show up. Just my luck; I probably would have missed Noah's big ship.

After the dream of smelt prosperity dried up I decided to go after the lubrication business; I dug a pit big enough to stand in while greasing cars, changing oil, etc. I lined it with strong boards and packed down the soil around it by driving my 1932 Ford back and forth. The pit was wasted effort; I didn't use it much. I also looked into the business of selling and fixing tires. Selling would have required an inventory, definitely not possible. I did some tire repair work, but it was not worth advertising for.

On rainy evenings some of the local citizens would come in and we had some good discussions about the reasons why we had to do stupid things for a living, such as trying to operate a one-man service station without enough capital to maintain a decent inventory.

The mayor of Troutdale lived across the road and I sometimes hired his son to watch the station while I ran some errands. The mayor kept a flock of peacocks, which have a loud disagreeable voice, day and night.

A new highway has by-passed the old Columbia River Highway with its many curves. Gilmore is not around as an oil company any more. While I was away winning World War II in South Carolina, the tiny town of Troutdale, which had two hundred inhabitants in 1939, acquired a plant that made aluminum for the war effort, and had to grow to absorb a large influx of people. Just my luck; I missed that boom, too.


© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson

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