Primal Pump

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Reighard’s Gas and Oil, which stands at 3205 Sixth Avenue in Altoona, Pennsylvania, looks pretty much like a thousand—or twenty thousand—other service stations across the country. You can buy a tankful of gasoline there, of course, and put air in your tires once you’ve fed a quarter into the machine (because nobody gives away free air anymore). What sets it apart from many of its fellows is the fact that the employees there still check your oil and water and clean your windshield. “They’re a particular breed,” says the former service manager Jan Martin, “sporting uniforms and nametags, and they make it a point to call their customers by name.” This is as it should be, for they are the keepers of a historic shrine of considerable importance. Reighard’s is the oldest operating gas station in America.

FULL SERVICE SINCE 1909 reads a sign on the main building, and Reighard’s history reflects the immense transition that overtook this nation in the early years of the century. As early as 1904 a blacksmith named Gordon Hinkle started selling an oil product, probably kerosene, from his shop on this site. In 1909 there were enough horseless carriages chugging past on Sixth Avenue to spur Hinkle to sell gasoline, although he hedged his bet by continuing to shoe horses. Hinkle bought his gas from Samuel Reighard, who in turn was supplied by his brother, a banker and oil refiner in Pittsburgh, a hundred miles to the west.

Gas sales grew while blacksmith work dwindled. Sometime around the First World War, Hinkle turned over the station to Samuel Reighard and his son, George, who heavily promoted the location and himself as a dealer in high-grade gasoline and oils. By then the station had taken on its present form. There are two buildings: the office, which is the old blacksmith shop—a cinder-block rectangle topped with hardened concrete shingles—and a long series of bays that served first as stalls for horses and then as garages for cars.

By the 1920s Reighard’s was providing full service twenty-four hours a day, dispensing gas from brick-clad kiosks, each topped with an oddly elegant-looking lighting fixture. The establishment prospered; Herb Wissinger, who worked there in the late 1930s, remembers pumping 1,800 gallons of gas a day.

After George Reighard died, in 1936, his wife, Mary, ran the station for a decade and then turned it over to their daughter, Louise. For years Louise was able to compete with the big chains thanks to the fact that a Pennsylvania Railroad siding ran right up to her pumps; she could buy fuel on the open market and have it shipped to her by tank car.

The business stayed in family hands until 1978, when the Martin Oil Company bought it. The new owners brought in a new brand of fuel, so today the pumps and the canopy all bear the name CITGO. But the sign on the concrete-shingled building behind them reads REIGHARD’S , and it always will.