By Cecile Hales
In the early years of the 20th century, an automobile was a prestige item available only to those with the finances and foresight to acquire this new technological marvel. As the number of autos increased after World War I, so did the opportunities for local businesses to provide essential services to car owners.
First and foremost was fuel, of course, and one map of Winnetka at this time contained a number of red dots scattered on various roads through the Village identifying the location of gas stations for the growing number of autos.
It is strange to think of a gas station situated on busy Elm Street, but Winnetka’s 1920 telephone book listed “garages” at 719 Elm AND 724 as well as 762 Lincoln Avenue and 666 Center Street (now Green Bay Road). There were also two ”filling stations” at 1010 Tower Road (now the site of Zengeler’s Cleaners) and 1000 Linden (as Green Bay north of Tower was called). In 1921 the Triangle Garage and Motor Company was built at 555-57 Chestnut. Later called the Hanson Motor Company, it operated into the 1940s.
Those early automobiles also needed frequent service for tires, batteries, brakes and mufflers, lubrication and engine tune-ups, not to mention occasional towing and body repairs. By 1930, the phone book listings for “Automobile Service Stations” had grown to 10, including Braun Brothers Service Station at 475 Chestnut, later known as Runnfeldt & Belmont.
In the 1940 phone book 12 service stations were shown. Many listings now included the name of the gasoline brand carried. Some business names indicated they provided battery, tire and ignition service, and many of these firms also took 1/2 or 1/4 page display advertisements for the first time. In the 1967 Winnetka phone book, the number of gas stations remained steady– there were six on Green Bay Road alone. One of these was Wally Gibbs Pure Oil Service Station at 574 Green Bay Road (forerunner of Fred’s Union 76 station).
Since then the trend has reversed dramatically. By 1997 Runnfeldt & Belmont had closed, leaving only three gas stations in Winnetka: Fred’s garage at 574 Green Bay Road, New Trier Mobil at 518 Winnetka Avenue, and Smith’s Amoco on 1025 Tower Road.
Now Fred’s has closed (in April 2016), as has the station on Winnetka Avenue, and just the Amoco (now BP) station on Tower Road remains.
Another former service station in Hubbard Woods, which until recently serviced Volvo cars, has also closed. There are no providers of automobile service in Winnetka today.
Obviously, the population of Winnetka has grown in 100 years and the number of cars has increased at an even faster rate, so what is the explanation for this disappearing act?
Many factors have contributed to the loss of our filling and service stations. Modern cars can travel much farther on a tankful and drivers cover greater distances, which means there’s a greater chance they will fill up at gas stations outside the Village. Tires are better and car engines more reliable so cars are less likely to need the same kind of servicing they required in earlier days.
Competition from large retailers such as Costco, who sell cheaper fuel, has hurt the small local gas station. Many larger stations remain in business because their convenience stores sell the more profitable items such as food, drink and other supplies to the traveling motorist.
Soon some of these may also offer charging stations for the growing number of electric vehicles along with the dozens of gas pumps. And finally, with rising property values in Winnetka, many gas station owners decided they could make more by closing down and selling to developers. A condo building now occupies the site of the former Runnfeldt & Belmont garage.
Fred’s Garage at Chestnut and Green Bay Road has been converted to a casual restaurant of the same name (retaining two large garage doors and the Mobil winged horse emblem), which opened at the end of September. A similar renovation has transformed the former Volvo repair shop in Hubbard Woods into a trattoria-style Italian restaurant, called Mino’s, which opened in early October.
We can thank modern cars and modern times for these changes in our village… and just hope we don’t need gas or service for our cars very close to home.