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SHERER’S

 

My first 20 years were lived in South Fork and during that time I saw many businesses close, but one of the few that was there before me, and still there after I left, was Sherer’s Service Station.

 

Sherer’s was located on a corner of Maple and Lake streets; probably the busiest intersection in town.  The new Route 219 did not exist and Lake Street was still Route 53, over which all the mainline traffic between Cresson and Johnstown flowed.

 

Maple Street was the longest street in town, and besides being in the business district, was the way to the “suburbs” of Frog Hollow and Bealtown.  It also led to the railroad yard and freight station, the foundry, town dump, numerous coal mines, and the former brewery, brick yard, and lumber yard, and clay mine.

 

No wonder, then, that Louis Sherer decided to open his feed and lumber store on that corner about 85 years ago.  In later years, his son Leonard opened a gas station in front of the feed store on the very edge of the corner, and following his return from World War II, youngest son Paul, or “Penny” as he was known to the townsfolk, took charge of the gas station while brother Sam ran the feed store.  Older brothers Leonard and Dave went on to bigger and better things with the Sherer Oil Company in Johnstown.

 

The Sherer brothers were very pleasant and friendly guys, and as long as I can remember, their business was a hangout as well as a place of employment for many teenage Bealtown boys and a few who lived close by on Lake Street.

Anytime I happen to make a rare visit to a feed store, I’m instantly reminded, by the smell of the grain, of Sam Sherer’s feed store.  It kinda makes me homesick for that time and that place, which was a great site to hang out during the summer.  Sam didn’t mind a bunch of us hanging around because we all helped out whenever extra workers were needed, and we never asked for any pay.  It was just a group of guys with nothing to do and willing to help a friend in exchange for a cool place to spend some time.  And it literally was a cool place on a hot summer day inside that big old building.

 

The building actually housed two businesses before the new gas station was built in 1956.  On the end toward Lake Street was Basile’s Tavern, with an alley running between it and the old gas station.  The empty beer kegs were set outside the side door against the wall, and a walk past there enabled one to inhale the strong fragrance of stale beer.  Yes, it was a fragrance to me, because I enjoyed the smell of a business.  It was a grown-up smell of something that kids weren’t permitted to be a part of.  Of course, it’s good that kids weren’t allowed to be a part of the tavern scene, but the smell of any business was a very notable and pleasurable thing to me.

 

I liked the smell of coal, carbide, and the axle grease on the wheels of the mine cars.  I liked the smell of gas and oil at the gas station, and the smell of the lumber and grain in the feed store.  The smell of the smoke and steam of the old railroad engines was a favorite.  Even going into Siegal’s and sniffing the smell of the clothing, or the leather shoes in Lewine’s, or the meat in Burger’s Meat Market was enough to make a memory of those places.

 

I never thought much about that before, but the fragrances of those oldtime businesses  added to their character which plays a big part in perpetuating the memories.  Do you think anyone will remember the smell of a Walmart 50 years from now?  The only store today I could enter blindfolded and tell you what it is, is one of those candle stores.  That’s a real toughie.

 

Besides the long, main floor which was mostly grain storage, the feedstore building had an upstairs for lumber and a basement that served as a garage for the delivery truck.  There was an el addition on the west end that stored rolls of tarpaper and other roofing materials, and also served as our pinochle playing room.  Separate from the main building, sitting on the corner of Maple Street and the railroad, was the cement building.  When a truckload of cement came in, Sam was glad we were all there to unload and store those bags of cement by hand.  There was no forklift.

Sam’s office was next to the wall that separated his business from the tavern.  A long bench afforded a place to sit for any men or boys who were in a loitering mood.  Sam never minded how many people were in there, or whether they were talking, playing cards, or whatever, as long as it didn’t get too noisy or interfere with him doing business.  Rumor had it that part of his business was bookmaking.  I do remember Sam being on the phone a lot.

 

In the summer of ’51 my oldest brother Bill was Sam’s truck driver, so most of my summer days were spent riding with Bill as he made his deliveries.  It was not unusual for two of us to be riding in the cab with Bill, and three or four more in the back with the feed and lumber, providing plenty of help for the loading and unloading.

 

About once a week Bill had to go to the John Walters Lumber Company in Johnstown to replenish the feedstore stock and there was always a gang riding along in the back.  One day while Bill was fueling the truck at the pumps, Sam came over and said the gang couldn’t go – Walters had complained about too many people coming with the truck.  Dejectedly, I climbed out and watched Bill drive off, but a little later, Sam saw me there and said, “I didn’t mean you couldn’t go; just those other guys.”  Well, that made me feel better, knowing I could go the next time.

In September of 1951, Bill joined the Air Force and Ron Russell took over the driving duties for Sam.  In the late fifties, Sam replaced the old ’49 Chevy truck with a newer model that Kenny Box drove for awhile, and then was handled by Ace Swartzentruver until the feed store closed.  Turn signals are taken for granted today, but I can remember Bill installing them on the old truck.

 

Dad bought his gas at Sherer’s and I always liked stopping there.  Penny would come out, greeting us with a smile, (a self-service gas station would have been a ridiculous notion then) and Dad would order a dollar’s worth.  That amount would buy over three gallons, as regular was about 27 cents a gallon then, and you could get hi-test for 30 cents, but that was kind of extravagant.

 

Once, in 1955, there was a gas war and the price was dropping a couple pennies a day until it bottomed out at 17 cents a gallon.  Imagine that -- oil companies lowering prices to get more business!  After buying gas for less than 30 cents a gallon all our lives, no wonder it was such a shock in ’73 when the price zoomed to 60 cents, and later to more than a dollar.

 

Today, the current price is just under $3.00, about ten times as much as it was 50 years ago, and people are up in arms, but I wonder about that.  What hasn’t gone up in price ten times since then?  Why should gasoline be the only thing that sells for the same price as it did 50 years ago?  A new car costs ten times as much as it did in 1956 and I don’t hear calls for investigations of the auto makers.  Yes, I wonder about such things.

While Penny was pumping the gas, I would be looking out the window at the dials on the pump, registering the gallons and dollars, hearing the little “ding” for every gallon, and enjoying the great smell of gasoline.  Today’s digital, dingless, self-service pumps don’t have any character at all.  And the dollar numbers go way too fast.

 

When I was old enough to go out at night (about 14) I started hanging out with the Sherer gang.  On any night, along with the two guys working, there would be three or four others just hanging around.  Most of the guys in the gang worked evenings and weekends for 50 cents an hour, with each getting about 20 hours a week.  I wasn’t on the payroll but would help out for a coke when the workers were busy.

 

One of the things I liked about that old garage was the coke machine.  It looked like an old, rounded refrigerator but was red and had “Have a Coke” printed on it.  I was always wanting to have a coke but very seldom had a nickel to pay for it.  When I did, I would drop the nickel in the slot, twist the handle, and one of those old 8-ounce, thick green bottles would come clunking down into the opening.  The cap would be pried off on the opener and I would enjoy the ice-cold, wonderful taste of coke that hasn’t quite tasted the same since that old machine was replaced.

 

That happened in 1956 when the old garage was torn down and a new, larger one was built.  That was exciting.  The pump islands were bigger, the parking lot was bigger and included a diesel-kerosene pump, and the inside was roomier, giving us even more room to hang out, but Penny didn’t like to see anyone sitting on the large, long counter.    The extra space was acquired by tearing down the tavern part of the feed store building and expanding in that direction.  Basile moved his tavern into the building directly across Lake Street.

 

Unfortunately, the old red coke machine didn’t make the transition.  It was replaced by a modern (I hate that word) tall, square machine that dispensed a syrup-water mixture into a paper cup for a dime.  Disgusting!  The price had doubled and the product appeal had diminished.  Someone should have gotten President Eisenhower to investigate the soft drink companies for price gouging.

 

But the pinball machines were still there.  I loved those things but hardly ever had a nickel to play them.  The story of my life.  If you were lucky enough to win 20 games, you could cash them in for a buck.  The few times that I was so fortunate was like hitting the lottery.  A buck would go a long way when you could get a drink for a dime and play the pinball machine for a nickel.

 

The two machines in Sherer’s were the bingo card type.  Those were my favorites.  You got five balls for a nickel and there were twenty-five numbered holes where the balls could end up.  The twenty-five numbers were on a bingo card on the upright portion of the machine, and getting three, four, or five numbers in a row would win you some games.  The more nickels you put in for each game, or the more games you pressed off if you had already won, would raise the odds so you could win a larger amount of games.

 

One of the machines was “magic lines” and the other was “magic squares”.  By putting in more nickels for a game and raising the odds, the machine might also give you the ability to move certain lines or squares of numbers, making it easier to line up three or more in a row to win.  I remember watching a man put over forty bucks in a machine one afternoon, and at one point he had 800 games racked up, but ended up punching them all off and losing everything.  I couldn’t believe it!

 

We would gather at Sherer’s around seven in the evening, talk for a while, then go up to the Dairy Nook, or in later years, Parkeys until after ten o’clock.  When I was in junior high, the 9:45 curfew for those under 16 was put into effect and we were sure to be headed home by that time, but during the high school years, it would be after ten when we returned to Sherer’s.  Police chief Ernie Hudson wouldn’t bother us because he knew we weren’t troublemakers.

 

If one of the guys had a car, we might go to one of the out-of-town teen joints, or quite often we would hitchhike.  But we were always back to Sherer’s before 11 p.m., which was closing time, to give an account of the evening’s events to the two guys who had to work.

After they tallied up the receipts, counted the money and put it in a bag, we would hop in a car or walk up to Penny’s house at the top of Maple Street to make the deposit.  One time one of the guys was walking up by himself with the bag of money and was robbed.  If Neil was there with his car, we often made a trip to Summerhill after dropping off the money bag, for a cheeseburger at the Little Chef drive-in.

 

Sherer’s was a stopping place on the way to school in the morning, after lunch, and on the way home in the afternoon.  Besides home and school, we spent a lot of time at Sherer’s.

 

At this writing, Penny and Sam have been dead a number of years, the station sold and converted to a convenience store, and its longest serving employee, John “Ace” Swartzentruver, is semi retired.  Ace started in the feed store over 50 years ago, working for Sam.  While still in high school, it’s been said he made good money being a runner for Sam’s bookmaking enterprise.  Ah, that’s where I heard that rumor.

 

When Sam closed that portion of the business and moved over to the gas station with Penny, Ace made the move as well.  Except for a very short stint in a coal mine, Ace spent all of his working years at that same business.  Another long-time gas station employee was Donnie “Moon” Husband, who passed away many years ago.  So if you remember buying gas at Sherer’s before Ace or Moon worked there, you’re older than you think.

 

 

Charles E. Edwards

Published February 2, 1994

Revised May 19, 2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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