Sad Loss of a Full-service Station
Gazette Article by: Jane Lord
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1996
It was 1933, the middle of the Great Depression, when Gene Belmont graduated from New Trier and began working full time for Braun Brothers Service Station at 475 Chestnut Street. The gas he pumped into customer’s Duesenbergs, Stutz Bearcats and Packards was 12 cents a gallon, and he learned the workings of cars by observing the station’s mechanics. Eighty-hour weeks earned him $12, ten of which he contributed to his family’s 12-person household for room and board. Sixty-three years later Gene Belmont still comes to work at the station every day.
In 1936 the business became Runnfeldt and Belmont, when two inseparable Spruce Street friends, Gene’s older brother Frank “Sheik” Belmont and Mim Runnfeldt, bought the station – one of eleven in Winnetka. Frank Belmont died about 20 years ago, and in 1992 Runnfeldt sold his interest in the station to Jake Seabury, a Belmont in-law.
When Runnfeldt and Belmont closes this summer, the village will have only three service stations. A lifelong resident, Gene will look back on working for the same local business for more than 60 years – a record in Winnetka.
“In earlier days I did a little bit of everything, but cars weren’t so complicated then,” he recalls. “I learned about cars by working with the station’s mechanics. Tune-up work was required every 10,000 miles, whereas today you can go 100,000 miles. Tires didn’t last as long as they do today, and we had three men who just did tire repairs. We had two greasing men and two who picked up and delivered cars for service calls all day long.” Car owners, Belmont believes, know less than ever about what’s under their hoods. “You can’t work on a car today unless you’ve had a lot of schooling. Computers and electronics make it too complicated.”
Gene Belmont could barely peer through the steering wheel when he learned to drive a Model-T Ford at the age of eight. It was 1947, after five years in the Army Quartermaster Corps during World War II, before he could afford his first car.
Looking back on six decades at the station, Belmont recalls the day a boiler blew up in the building next door, where Lakeside Coffee House is today. The site was a dairy’s distribution point in the 1930s, and when one of the dairy’s owners tried to refill a boiler, it blew up, killing him and blowing out the wall of the adjoining office.
The 1973 gas shortage was a memorable episode, too. Runnfeldt and Belmont was one of the few stations in town allotted gas, and at times lines of gas-thirsty cars stretched three blocks south awaiting meager five-gallon allotments.
“The best part of the business,” Belmont said, “is meeting interesting people all day long. Ninety-nine percent are really nice.” “Full-service stations have gone the way of horses,” he added.
In the late 1970s he retired, but changed his mind and returned to the station several years later. In his second retirement he plans to give full attention to his favorite hobby, gardening. His accomplishments include a 30-by-50 foot vegetable garden and 300 feet of flower beds that are full of plants he starts from seeds under lights in his basement and moves to cold frames.
Editor’s Note: When Runnfeldt and Belmont closed, condominiums were built on the site.
Names of Mim Runnfeldt and Frank Belmont corrected, 1/3/2019.