On Larry Wiltrout’s last day as a small business owner, a customer he had never seen before pulled up to the full-service gas station and asked for help.
“It broke my heart,” said Wiltrout, who owned Lee’s Fuel Service on Park Avenue for 10 years. “The man came in and wanted gas. He said, ‘I don’t have any legs.’ There was nothing I could do about it. I ran out of gas yesterday.”
A victim of a bad economy and changing times, the last permanent full-service gas station in Chippewa Falls — a throwback to a bygone era — closed for good Wednesday.
Wiltrout, 59, was still around finishing up some work, but when the fuel tanks ran dry, he put up the “Out of Business” signs and prepared to join the ranks of the unemployed.
Wiltrout feels badly for his many elderly customers who came to him because they needed help pumping gas. They will have few options now.
“I did have a number of them who were disabled,” he said.
But those customers became fewer and fewer, as society moved away from the very style of service that Wiltrout’s station offered.
“It’s been a gas station since the ‘30s,” said Wiltrout of the property. “This building was built in the mid to late ‘40s.”
Stan Thompson owned it, and one other station, back in those days. Jerome “Lefty” Lee started working there in 1950 and within a few years bought the place, and for many years people called it “Lefty’s.”
Wiltrout married Lefty’s daughter. He was a young man in his early 20s when he started working at the station, which consisted of a tiny office space and the gas pumps outside.
A lot of the small business’ income came from outside home heating sales. Big bulk tanks out back took deliveries straight from the rail line that borders the back of the property.
The business also had an ice house. Years ago, it farmed the ice out of the pond above Glen Loch. Later, they made or bought the ice bulk and cut it into 25-pound blocks for sale.
“That went the way of the dinosaur, too,” Wiltrout said.
Still, there were other avenues for business.
“When I first got here there was no auto repair at all. That was added for me,” said Wiltrout, who had some training as a mechanic.
Between the fuel sales and the repair work they made a go of it. Wiltrout worked there for 25 years before he bought the business from his father-in-law.
“Ten years ago, there was a place for us,” he said.
When everyplace else went to self-service pumps, Lee’s maintained that niche of the old-fashioned full-service station, complete with a neighborly attitude. Wiltrout said he had customers find that they left their billfolds at home and could not pay. He simply told them to come back later.
Those dwindling elderly customers were not being replaced by new, younger customers who had no problem pumping their own gas. The business had no convenience store, the main source of income for most gas stations today.
With the margin on gas low, Wiltrout maintained the business on auto repair work.
“That dried up, too. Everybody likes to go out to Wal-Mart,” he said.
As the weather turns cooler, many of those elderly customers are preparing to put up their cars for the winter. That impending downturn on top of the big downturn in the economy was more than the small business could bear.
The numbers on the old pumps would spin around on a wheel at Lee’s, some of the last pumps around that are not electronic and digital. The area still has a couple of pumps like that, used to fill up boats out at the lake, but they are all antiques now.
The wheels on those pumps stopped turning on Tuesday at Lee’s, a business that had become something of an antique itself.
Wiltrout, too young to retire, is looking to sell the property, if there are any takers. No longer a man who runs a business that had become unique, Wiltrout finds himself in a position that is, sadly, not at all unique.
He’s looking for a job.