Every day around noon, brothers Rick and Randy McKague set up a card table in the middle of the garage at Paul’s Service at 110 N. Main Street in Meridian and eat lunch.
On hot days, like the 102-degree scorcher Tuesday, the brothers scoot the table about a foot toward an auto lift to catch more air passing through the open building. That day, the lift held a 1960s-era Ford F-150 truck needing new front brakes.
“The breeze might be as hot as an oven with the door open to check the cookies,” Rick McKague said. “But that’s what we do.”
That might serve as the battle cry for the McKagues and the owners of other full-service gas stations.
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When Dick Sola bought what is now Dick’s Chevron Service at 3200 N. State St. in 1961, all gas stations were full-service. An attendant would pump gas, wipe windshields, and check tire pressure and oil levels. Service stations had garages and on-site mechanics to take care of maintenance and repairs.
But in the 1980s, full-service stations began converting to self-serve stations with attached convenience stores. A few hung on, because that was what their owners had always done. Customers were saddened when Scott Smith closed Smith’s Chevron at Hill Road and Harrison Boulevard last fall. The station, opened by his grandfather, served the North End for more than 50 years.
The McKague brothers — Rick is 55, Randy 56 — also are part of a family tradition. They grew up working for their father at the station he opened in 1968 and have never worked full-time jobs elsewhere.
Sola, who is 82, works seven days a week. “As long as I have to eat, I guess I’ll keep doing it,” Sola said. ( He told the Statesman’s Tim Woodward the same thing in 2011.)
Paul Marler, owner of Larry’s Chevron Service at 404 12th Ave. in Nampa, plans to keep doing it, too.
“It’s old-school, the way we’ve always done it,” Marler said. “I don’t think we’ll ever change.”
In the full-service era, and especially in small towns, drivers often knew the names of the attendants greeting them with a windshield squeegee in hand, Rick McKague said. He thinks buying gas today turns drivers into robots.
“You used to talk at the pump, ask how things are going,” he said. “It was more interaction than today, where you stick in your card and drive away without saying hello.”
Ralph Sokel remembers his parents frequenting a Chevron station at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Warren Street when he was growing up in Boise in the 1950s and ’60s. Sokel, who now lives in Austin, Tex., said the station relied on friendliness and word-of-mouth advertising from satisfied customers.
“The owner was Curly and the mechanic was Bill,” Sokel said. “I can’t recall if I ever knew their full names. They would give my friends and me old tire tubes that we used to float the river.”
Jerry Brown remembers working at the Bryson Brothers’ Phillips 66 station at 26th Street and Fairview Avenue, as well as the Utoco (Utah Oil Co.) station at the corner of Orchard and Emerald streets from 1954 to 1958. Brown, who now lives in Woodland, Wash., describes himself as a “car-crazed teenage boy” who learned how to turn a wrench on the job.
The mix of service, sales and mechanics made for an ideal first job for him.
“Now, all that used to encompass being a service station has been fragmented,” he said. “People pump gas themselves. The maintenance is done by a lube-and-oil-change franchise. Repair is the province of a car dealer or mechanic shop, and Les Schwab handles tire and brake work.”
SERVICE STATIONS TODAY
Long-time customers return to Dick’s and Paul’s because they can’t get that service elsewhere. Janis Hewitt, of Boise, and Pete Grady, a Middleton resident, say they have frequented Dick’s for more than 40 years.
“I trade at that station when I’m anywhere close by,” Grady said. “It’s worth it to me to pay a few cents per gallon, because he’ll wash my windshield and check my oil if I ask him to.”
Many of Sola’s customers don’t understand why he washes their windows and charges 6 to 10 cents more per gallon of gasoline than most gas stations.
Hewitt said Sola has made countless fixes and adjustments on her car over the years, free of charge. “I will keep going back as long as he’s in business,” she said.
The McKagues added a self-serve island during the 1990s when more customers preferred to save some money. Over time, much of the service was phased out as fewer customers wanted it, Rick McKague said. But the brothers still provide full service for anybody who asks, and to a core group of long-time customers who want the old-school touch.
One of those is Meridian’s Dorothy McClure, who describes herself as “real old.” She has called the McKagues when her 1992 Pontiac has had problems around town. Several times, one of the brothers has driven to her location and arranged for a tow truck to take her car to the shop.
“I drive in, they see me, take care of my gas, wash my windows and I’m on my way,” McClure said. “I tell Rick and Randy that if I had to go to another station, I wouldn’t know how to put the gas in. That’s how spoiled I am.”
SERVICE STATION FUTURE
Only one of the four gas pump lanes at Larry’s in Nampa is full-service. Larry’s has 14 employees. Marler’s shop doesn’t charge extra to pump gas. Merler said he pays two clerks anyway, so they might as well pump gas and provide the other service that has built customer loyalty.
“We get a lot of elderly people, but also people who go to work in suits and dresses who don’t want to get gas on them,” he said. “And there’s young people a little too lazy to get out and pump their own gas.”
The McKague brothers’ father, Paul McKague, 78, is recovering after having triple-bypass surgery about a month ago, Rick McKague said.
After selling Paul’s to his sons in 1995, Paul McKague regularly came in and worked for free, sometimes buying lunch for all three.
“In other words, he’d come in and go backwards,” Rick McKague said.
The McKagues do not have an “escape plan” to retire or sell Paul’s, Rick McKague said. He is worried that his knees will eventually give out after years of working on the concrete, as his father’s did.
Has Rick McKague ever thought about a different line of work? “Not really,” he said.
Sola said he has never taken more than three days off in a row.
“This is the only thing I know,” he said.