Former owner to explore history of gas stations in Fox Valley
Sometimes stories start one way and travel to an entirely different end.
Archie Bentz, Jr. got a call from city of Batavia personnel asking for a bio on his dad, the late Archie Bentz, former mayor of Batavia.
"I started researching the gas stations that my dad owned and I ended up getting into research about gas stations throughout the Tri-Cities area," he said.
Bentz will lead a roundtable discussion on the history of gas stations in the Fox Valley from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday, May 24, at the Batavia Public Library, 10 S. Batavia Ave.
Bentz certainly knew his way around gas stations. He started working in one when he was 11.
"My job was to wash and dry the towels that were used," Bentz said. "I worked for him all through high school and college doing odd jobs and driving the tow truck at night. I usually had tow truck duty on holidays as well. In fact, my sisters joked that there isn't a Christmas photo without me in my Texaco shirt."
Like many young men in the late '60s and early '70s, Benz was drafted. He went into the Army and was sent to Vietnam.
"I was wounded on my 13th day in country," he said. "I was the 13th person in my patrol. I lost my eye when they took 13 fragments out of it and I had 13 pieces of shrapnel in my leg. It took 13 days to sew me up because of possible infection and then I spent three months in the hospital. I wasn't superstitious, I was glad I still had my foot."
When he returned from Vietnam, Archie Bentz senior offered his son a job, but the younger Bentz wanted to finish college. He headed to Waubonsee Community College and then to Western Illinois University to earn a degree in business and marketing. He got a job selling automotive parts to gas stations.
His dad again offered him a partnership.
"It was really important to me that I did it on my own," Bentz said. "I was able to get a loan and purchase the station in St. Charles on Main Street, the current site of the St. Charles History Museum."
Bentz knew the importance of customer service. His dad had taught him well.
"I made sure that the station was spotless, including the bathroom," Bentz said. "My wife made curtains for the bathroom and always had fresh flowers near the sink."
Bentz is able to rattle off numerous St. Charles families whom he served and he also can tell you what cars they drove. He also has interesting stories about gasoline pricing.
"When I opened in 1977 the price of gas was $0.599 which was about double the price from the pre-embargo prices of 73-74. The pumps would only go to $0.99. What did we do when the price exceeded a dollar? Post the price on the pump at half, then multiply final sale by two. Imagine the confusion in the beginning when the street sign read $1.11, the pump price read $0.555 and the sale of 10 gallons read $5.55 and you informed the customer that the correct sale was $11.10. But before that, you had to train your employees, especially high school age working at night alone, how to multiply," he explained.
When Archie Bentz Jr. retired, he began delving into his father's business history as well as the history of all the stations in the area.
Flipping through the pages of documentation and photos takes you back to a simpler time when gas station attendants not only pumped the gas but cleaned your windshields and checked under the hood. And if the engine was making unusual sounds, they'd suggest you bring the car in for inspection.
Bentz said his father only had an eighth-grade education.
"He was really bright and ahead of his time," he added. "He ran for alderman and then mayor, because he had a contract to purchase the Osborne farm at the northeast corner of Randall Road and Main Street. He was going to put in a Holiday Inn and a gas station, but he couldn't get it past the zoning department, who insisted the area should remain residential. It's ironic that there is a station on that corner now."
The St. Charles History Museum at 215 E. Main St. is currently acknowledging the 90th birthday of the building, and there is a display of artifacts and photos from the history of the old Texaco building. Check out the fascinating exhibit, which will be up through May 25.
Archie Bentz Jr. spent 13 years running the St. Charles station. Unlike many others, he considers 13 a lucky number.