Runnfeldt and Belmont

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.

Matchbook from Runnfeldt & Belmont Service Station, WHS Object ID 1996.2016

Matchbook from Runnfeldt & Belmont Service Station, WHS Object ID 1996.2016

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.

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10 Responses to “Runnfeldt and Belmont”

  1. April 29, 2016 at 3:41 PM #

    Is the image of the matchbook available high res? I am a Runnfeldt, my dad worked there, and would love to have this image.

    • April 29, 2016 at 6:40 PM #

      Hi Jon,
      Thanks so much for the comment. I will reach out to you via email.

  2. February 27, 2017 at 8:09 AM #

    I Always Like Working There In The Mid 80 Drove All The Way From Southside Chicago Washing Car’s To Changing Oil & Installation Of New Tires. 1st Place I Ever Heard Of Customer Leave Keys At Garage & Home Garage Open For Us To Pick Up Car’s For Repair Or Just Wash & Fill Up. Again Jake Thank You, Great Experience. Royce

  3. September 10, 2017 at 10:37 PM #

    Don’t forget to mention Irene Snyder when talking about Runnfeldt and Belmont. She ran that office like it was her own. She knew just about every customer by name, where they lived, what kind of car they owned and their phone too.

  4. Bob Dupre July 15, 2018 at 1:19 AM #

    I’m a little late to this love fest, stumbled into it by accident, but I gotta weigh in…I’m part of this.

    When I went to work for Roger’s Shell Service at Lake and Laramie in Wilmette in 1963, Runnfeldt-Belmont (Shell, as I recall) set the bar for customer service. My boss, Gordy Rogers, modeled his customer service after them. In 1972, When I left Gordy’s and founded CARS of America, I continued, and still continue to this day delivering concierge-level service, in the same tradition; do it right, charge a fair price for the best service ever, know their name, their kids names, dog’s name, what they drive , what they have had done and still need to do.

    Not many of us left, other than Bob Berger and some Claveys, not sure who else, even fewer still working.

    My wife and I went to Fred’s Garage last Thursday night for dinner, after an amazing house concert at Val and Mark Haller’s with Billy Martin. Billy and I are both both ’65 New Trier Alumni. Looked at the vintage cigarette machine left over from when Fred’s was pumping gas and selling cigarettes. Made me think about pumping full service gas at Gordy’s in the summer of ’63 for .25/gal, smokes for .25/pack, labor rate at $8/hr/. 60 hr/6 day week was normal for $175/week.

    John Prine’s lyrics in his song ” Space Monkeys” are so true… “those were the good old days, we thought they’d never end”. In hindsight, It has a really short trip from 10 to 71. I’m glad I packed it full.

    • July 16, 2018 at 9:27 PM #

      Hi Bob. Wow, thanks so much for your comment! I bet you have many tales. Maybe you would consider writing us some reminiscences?

  5. December 28, 2018 at 3:35 AM #

    Hi, Just a clarification. You have the names of the R&B owners a little mixed up. Mim Runnfeldt and Frank “Sheik” Belmont were their names. I am Sheik’s granddaughter. Thank you for this nice article.

    • January 3, 2019 at 10:22 PM #

      Hi Anne. I have made those corrections. Thank you so much for helping us provide accurate historical articles.
      Thanks again,
      Rachel Ramirez, Curator

  6. James Manella June 11, 2019 at 7:05 PM #

    We had an account there so the kids in the Manella family could fuel the cars and they would send the bill to the house. In high school I worked at Freds Mobile for a bit Standard on Tower and Green Bay and the 76 in Hubbard Woods, I don’t think I worked at any of them for very long but I was just a kid.

  7. July 5, 2021 at 8:09 PM #

    I lived In Winnetka from 1942 until around 1962 ….I used to get my cars serviced at that station and a son of Mim , Jack Runnfeld was in my advisor group at New Trier ,,,he always had nice custom cars … and I was envious ..he also was very handsome but he had an accident after high school when he ran a go-cart into the tail gate of a station wagon and left a nasty scar across that handsome face …. too bad …
    David Schmidt

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