TREMONT — Tom Gibson shakes his head and smiles at the internet hubbub over Oregon’s gas-pump revolution.
News media nationwide have chortled in curiosity over new legislation in Oregon — along with New Jersey, the only states with self-service bans at filling stations — to allow motorists to fill their own tanks in rural areas at night. Meantime, social media have hosted a war of words between clueless pump neophytes (with fears about such horrors as spilling fuel on their shoes) and sneering pump veterans (who shred novices as sissified tenderfoots).
No such debate taints the Tremont Oil Co. There’s only one way gas is pumped here: full service. Under three generations of Gibsons, that’s how it’s been for almost a century.
"We've been here a long time," says Tom Gibson, 52, who runs the place. “We're still holding on."
As for Oregon, he just shrugs. What’s wrong with a little extra customer service?
"That's how it used to be,” he says. “Change isn't always a good thing. Sometimes it's good when things stay the same."
At Tremont Oil, things have stayed pretty much the same since 1924, when America's new love affair with automobiles was exploding. A post-war economic boom fueled the country's freewheeling wanderlust, with 10,000 Ford Motor Co. dealerships pushing a second consecutive production year of more than 2 million Fords, including the popular Model T.
Meanwhile that year in Tremont — about nine miles east of Pekin, and then home to maybe 900 residents — Glenn Gibson capitalized on the car craze by setting up a filling station east of town, on the main drag, Pearl Street, near what decades later would be Interstate 155. Five years later, Gibson slid the operation west along Pearl Street toward the center of Tremont, at James Street. There, the block building remains sturdy as ever, along with three service bays added in 1968.
Tremont itself retains not only a small-town charm but economic sustainability, as evidenced by a population now over 2,200. And Tremont Oil, aside from an occasional updating of pumps, retains a throwback feel.
Inside the independent gas station, you'll find no snappy mini-mart. A small selection of candy bars and sodas is dwarfed by shelves and racks of motor oil, antifreeze and other engine products, much like days of yore.
Speaking of which, just inside the front door you’ll find Don Gibson, 80, who took over from his dad in 1959. At the wide front desk, he’ll scribble through paperwork — the place does brisk business in fuel deliveries to area farms and shops, along with on-site tire and oil changes — while glancing out the big front window between him and the pump. There's no "ding-ding" of a pneumatic hose to alert him or others to the arrival of a new vehicle. He just makes sure to keep his peepers peeled.
He never misses a beat. He’s got the rhythm down.
"I've been doing it only 63 years," he says, beaming.
When a motorist pulls up, Don or Tom Gibson (the other five employees are mostly busy in the bays) will hustle outside. Despite a small sign stating "full service,” there’s no massive per-gallon price sign out front, as at modern stations. So, as a Tremont Oil attendant grabs the pump, newcomers — especially those born long after the era of full-service pumps — are puzzled.
"They're kind of shocked to see what we're doing," Tom Gibson says. "Some are OK with it, but others decided to drive next door. They assume it's going to cost a lot more."
On a recent weekday, the cost for regular was $2.66 a gallon at Tremont Oil compared to $2.53 at the franchise station next door. What does an extra 13 cents buy?
• Hand-cleaning of all windows
• Hand-scraping of any ice.
• Check of tire pressure, with free air at the nearby 1920s-era compressor.
• Check of oil level.
• Check on transmission fluid.
• Free and upbeat conversation.
"It's fun," Tom Gibson says. "You get to talk to a lot of people.”
Thirty years ago, after earning an economics degree at Illinois State University, he came back to join his dad at Tremont Oil. Though Tom Gibson handles many of the oil changes, he takes time to man the pumps, which are open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, closing one hour earlier on Saturday. He says many customers go nowhere else.
“They’re mostly people we've done business with for years," he says. "We have a lot of loyalty. A lot of our customers are ladies who don't want to pump gas. I think a lot of them in town never have, simply because they've always come here."
Wayne Haskett lives almost 10 miles away in Hopedale but often makes a special stop in Tremont to get full service. A Tremont native, Haskett, 67, prefers another unusual offering at Tremont Oil: Some pumps feature gasoline with no added alcohol, which is especially good for small engines, like those on lawn mowers.
"I like it for all my engines," he says firmly.
Plus, he doesn't mind the full service.
"It's nice," he says. "You don't get that hardly anywhere anymore."
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.