Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Last Service Station in Hawkinsville

The Peter Bogdanovich movie, “The Last Picture Show,” a black and white version of a small Texas town was based on a Larry McMurtry novel. The movie reflected life in the 1960s when theaters began to be replaced by televisions for family entertainment. In the fictitious community, the picture show closed after the owner died.
Life changed in many communities when the local picture shows began to close. In Hawkinsville, the Thompson Theater closed, and only those who recall “Picture Show” Thompson’s business being part of their lives remember that it was once located where the Hawkinsville Dispatch & News expanded addition is today. In many small towns, one can see the skeletal remains of a local picture show.
In another movie, “Back to the Future,” a young man from the 1980s was transferred to the year 1955 via the script and a Delorean automobile. As he walked around an earlier version of his home town, the camera followed a car into a service station for gasoline.

Moments later, a group of four men came out of the garage bay and surrounded the car, checking the oil, washing the windshields, sweeping the inside with whisk brooms and adding air to the tires—all of this in addition to having someone pump gas into the vehicle.
For those of us who grew up in a time when drugs stores had soda fountains and sandwich shops in them, every town had a picture show—now known as cinemas and found only in larger cities or metropolitan areas—grocery stores on every corner, and full-service gasoline stations in abundance. There are no more small grocery stores on every corner, and only a couple left in the county. There are no drugstores with soda fountains to be found. All of these things we no longer have, give us an inherent desire to cling to “The Last Service Station,” aka Woodard’s Service Station, as if we are clinging to a part of our heritage.
In his attempt to name the owners of gas stations throughout his years in Hawkinsville, Ronald Woodard began to sound like he was naming a who’s who of the history of Hawkinsville. Scratching his head, Woodard began to name off those he could recall during his sixty years. “Aaron Sewell, Freeman Bragg, Johnny Anderson, Bud Curry and his uncle, Charlie” Woodard said; “there was Bussey Woods, Leroy Gatlin, Tom Chalker, Aaron Floyd, Pete Butler, and Woodrow Powers who had a Phillips 66 station. There was Sam Clark, Melvin “Bully” McKinney, John Henry Anderson and Ray Hill. There was George Grinstead, Floyd Cobb and Lloyd Mays. I’ve been in the service station business myself since 1982. Those are all that I can remember, however there are probably many more that others can remember.”
According to Duane Woodard, brother of Ronald, “J. J. Sparrow, an Auto Parts Dealer told me once that he had 27 gas stations on his books, and all of them paid in full by the tenth of the month.” Both Woodard brothers have been working in the service station business a good part of their lives. Duane Woodard recalls working for Leroy Gatlin at his station which was located on the corner where PlantersFirst Bank is located today. “He really taught me the meaning of full service. He stressed that by showing them what full meant in full service, the customers would keep coming back to the places where their business was appreciated.”
Before the days of full service stations, some businesses installed gasoline pumps on the side of their buildings by the curb. With the coming age of the automobile, the world of business would begin to change drastically. More people who had previously sold buggies, also known as horse-drawn vehicles began to sell automobiles in those same businesses. With the increase in automobile sales, there was an increase in places to sell gas. America was adapting to traveling in machines that supplied their own power: no horse, no mule, no pedals required. By the end of World War I, gas was generally available on America's busiest streets and at rural crossroads. Then, as Ford's mass production and lowered costs began bringing car ownership within the financial reach of average American households, gas stations emerged as stand-alone businesses.
In their early years, gas stations often consisted of small, unsightly buildings and an unattractive assortment of pumps, and they drew complaints from nearby residents. As a result, major oil companies began to introduce standardized stations. Their distinctive styles were intended to build consumer loyalty by making a corporation's stations readily identifiable to customers, and they allowed the stations to blend more compatibly into their surroundings.
In neighboring Bleckley County, authors, William Purser and Fred Noegle, Jr. published a book entitled “The Auto Gypsies.”
Three residents of Cochran, Fred Noegle, Sr., his wife, Emma, and good friend, Miss Pansy Deese set out in their Model “T” Ford on a journey that would take them all the way across the country to California and back. They departed on that tremendous trip on March 6, 1923. Noegle thought to himself that the trip would be so different from the ones who took those journeys many years ago in covered wagons. In 1923, Henry Ford’s Model “T” was still almost in its infancy, and gasoline locations and repair shops were few and far between. Early dispensing was done in various ways. Filling and measuring depended on the capacity of cans, buckets or drums which were used at first, then on to portable rotary pumps and on to actual gauges. It proved to be a pioneer journey in itself. The book is loaded with pictures of the historic trip as well as their story. Certainly, the trio did not have the advantage of full service stations.
With further increases in the number of cars, some gas stations began to broaden their services into vehicle repair and the selling of tires, batteries and other auto parts and accessories. This trend became a virtual economic necessity for many stations during the hard times of the 1930s, as demand for gasoline dropped. Such changes affected station design. New buildings were made larger so automotive wares could be displayed and they often contained built-in bays for auto repair.
Things were somewhat different in the less populous countryside. Gas was, for the most part, sold at existing general stores, which were frequently located at intersections of rural highways. As pre-auto store buildings were replaced and as new stores were opened, the structures often featured covered drives sheltering gas pumps.
In some places, such as Arkansas, the Historic Preservation Program began a focused effort to identify sites related to the state's automotive history. The aim was to call attention to and preserve such places by having them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to gas stations, AHPP took note of places such as tourist courts, drive-in eateries and theaters, roadside diners, auto showrooms, and roadside attractions like small amusement parks and miniature golf courses. When we look at the history of our city by the muddy river, most of those things have disappeared or at best are standing as haunting reminders of a time gone by. It is little wonder some cling to The Last Service Station where oil and air are checked and windshields are washed at no extra charge.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Voice Sweeter Than Wine

For people who normally see her working the windows of the Hawkinsville Post Office, most have thoughts like cheerful, pleasant, and efficient postal clerk. When they find out that Chris Sercer is a talented singer, one without fear of performing live on a stage in front of a large audience, they are usually blown away. (Chris Sercer, local Postal Clerk in the Hawkinsville Post Office, continues to chase the original dream, singing alone after the retirement of her parents, brothers and sisters from singing.)
Immediately when Sercer took the stage at the Old Opera House, it was clearly evident that she was no stranger to performing. Much like this writer, those in attendance were dumbfounded at the talent she brought to the stage. Immediately, this writer began to wonder about her background. Where did she come from? Where has she been? Nashville? Memphis? New York? When I heard her sing one of the best renditions of the great love song, “Unchained Melody,” I thought there must be a mystery involved here.
Later, during an exclusive interview with Sercer, I asked her what she did before she worked at the post office, a job she has held for the last four years? She smiled shyly, looking downward, before answering the question with a chuckle. “I helped my husband, Jerry, in his business as a land mover.”
“Huh? What did you do, keep books?”
With a burst of laughter she said, “No! I drove a motor grader, big tractors, and earth movers—just whatever needed to be done.”
“Okay! Let’s start over. Where were you born? Tell me about your childhood, your early life, who you married, and how long have you been involved in singing?”
In talking with Sercer, it becomes clear that she is a person who doesn’t take herself seriously. That is to say, she finds much about her past and present life as having a humorous vein. It is just as clear that she does take her music seriously. Sercer has been singing since she was eleven-years-old.
Born and raised in nearby Pineview, the local Postal Clerk continues to chase that dream of becoming a recognized star singer.
(L-R, In their prime as a country and gospel trio, Chris Sercer and her two sisters, Donna and Celia went further than most groups. They chased a dream all the way to Nashville and back to central Georgia.)
As young girls, she and her two sisters began singing, along with their parents and brothers in a family gospel group known as Southern Cross.
After her parents gave up singing, the three sisters continued, gradually beginning to sing country music under the new name of Papa’s Pride. With a great local following while playing in clubs, fairs and anywhere people wanted to hear good music, the sisters had an urge to take their talent on the road.
The trio embarked on a trip to Nashville, Tennessee in an attempt to become recognized in the country music field. It was an expensive lesson for three young women from small town America.
(Shown above with Chris Sercer is Vince Gill a country music legend.)
Around 1990, they admit to having been na├»ve when they undertook the trip to country music headquarters. Thinking that others would take them for what they saw themselves—good singers who wanted to record music—they seemed surprised that Nashville was full of young singers who were in search of a contract and a shot at the Grand Old Opry. Tiring of the grind with very little hope as a country trio, Sercer’s sisters, Donna and Celia decided they had had it with the grind of Nashville. The trio suddenly became a solo vocalist, Chris Sercer, who was not ready to give up the dream.
Sercer is the first one to admit that the road to stardom is one that can only be described as a rough and rocky road. “My sisters and I were all married with children,” Sercer said. “They were my best friends and still are, and I could never blame them for deciding not to pursue the dream any further. It is especially difficult if you are on the road and your family is back home. It is a lonely journey.”
After her two sisters decided to give up chasing the dream, Chris, continued to sing at every opportunity. When asked about American Idol—a popular reality television show—Sercer thinks it is a good idea for giving undiscovered talent an opportunity to become known. She has no ill feelings about having lost out in her bid to become a singer in Nashville. (Whispering Bill Anderson poses with our postal clerk.)

“I was represented by a group in Brunswick, Georgia for about a year,” she said. “They thought they could get me some chances in the country music capitol, but eventually they ran short of cash. I did sing once in the Charlie Daniels Roundup Talent Show, but was beaten out by a very talented singer. There is no question that she had the talent to win.”
Through it all, she has no remorse about trying. She said her husband, Jerry Sercer was always her biggest supporter—never wavering—bodyguard, chauffer, and fan. If she wanted to try out for anything, he was always encouraging her to do so. (Chris and her husband, Jerry Sercer have two sons and a granddaughter. Jerry is the owner of his own business as a land mover.)

(Shown in this picture are Chris Sercer and one of her favorite horses, Needle Rey.)
Today, the couple own better than 25 horses, a passion they share. Each year, they look forward to a trip to Oklahoma where they participate as a couple in the rodeo. In addition, Chris begins the festivities by singing the National Anthem. ‘It is a great honor, lots of fun, and something we look forward to doing each year,” she said.
Where does the singer/postal clerk go from here? “Wherever the road takes us,” she said. “Life is good! When the opportunity arises for me to sing, I do it. I always sing from the heart, so much the better if people find my singing enjoyable.”
After watching the energy she brings to the stage along with a voice that Nashville missed out on, there is little doubt among her supporters that she has many fans.

(One of those fans is Little Jimmy Dickens of the Grand Ole Opry.)
“She sings Patsy Cline songs better than Patsy did,” said Julie Stewart, booking agent extraordinaire for the Arts Council.
She has been a lead-in singer for the Hall of Fame country group, Alabama, T. G. Shepherd and others. .”
Off and on she has been chasing her dream for years. She has a CD album of her songs available for purchase. She continues to look for her big break. Until that happens, Chris Sercer will continue singing and working the window at the Post Office.