The pictures lining the brown-paneled office walls of Bowman Oil Co. tell a story that stretches back to 1935.
There’s the faded black-and-white shot of when it was owned by Sinclair. There’s a picture of Harold Hayes, who operated a tank wagon from the site at the southeast corner of Main and Summit streets.
It was Hayes who hired Hugh Bowman to work for him in 1954. Three years later, Bowman and Dale Koon partnered to lease the operation, which was affiliated with Standard Oil at the time. Then they added a service station to the mix.
“It’s had a lot of owner/operators through the years until my dad and Dale leased it in 1959,” said Bill Bowman, one of Hugh’s five sons, all of whom spent time in their high school days working at the business.
Bill worked with his dad, eventually taking over the operation. He’ll pump his last gallon of gasoline on June 30 when he retires after 33 years at the station, which will close its doors that day as well.
“The thing I’ll miss the most is definitely the customers. They’ve been good to us for us to have lasted this long,” Bill said last week from his perch on a metal stool with a red vinyl cushion as he looked out at the busy intersection where he’s watched many seasons change.
For a gas station not located on the highway, and one that doesn’t have a convenience store, Bowman has nurtured a loyal clientele over the years.
Some come for the full-service treatment, which includes having their gasoline pumped by Bill or an employee and getting their windshield washed. Some enjoy the convenience of a personal charge account at the station that they can pay monthly. Others like stopping in to see a friendly face and talking about the weather or their family or a number of other topics that come up when chatting with a friend.
Just last week, a man popped his head in the office to let Bill know that his wife had his charge card and was in Dubuque. “Okay if I fill up and stop by to pay you later?” he asked.
“Sure,” Bill said with a smile.
He’s pumped thousands and thousands of gallons of gasoline for people, changed oil, fixed a tire here and there, or checked out some other engine problem.
And, his customers say, he’ll be missed.
“There’s just a hometown feeling here. It’s the last of a dying breed,” said Dick McCallister, who had stopped in recently to say hello to Bill after filling up his vehicle. While in high school, McCallister worked at Robo Wash, which used to be located by the Eagles Club and was owned by Hugh Bowman and Koon.
“You bet I’ll miss it,” he said of the station, which he typically stops at two or three times a week. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. Practical jokes. You could go in there and just chew the fat with Bill.”
Bill sold the tank wagon portion of the business to Mulgrew Oil Co. of Dubuque in December. That was the larger portion of his business. He decided to close the gas pumps as the cost of upgrading them would be too big of an investment at this point in his career.
“When I thought about the upgrades, I thought maybe it’s time to say goodbye,” he said.
The underground fuel storage tanks are scheduled to be removed July 5, with help from a state grant dedicated for that purpose.
In the frigid winter months, it wasn’t uncommon for passersby to see the station’s gasoline pumps wrapped cozily in blankets and the lights staying on all night. Bill said he got teased about it, but it helped keep the gears in the pump from getting too cold to operate.
He recalled the ribbing he took when he ran out of gas at the intersection of Main and Quarry streets – while he was driving the tank wagon.
One of the aspects Bill loved about that part of the business was the close connection with the local agriculture community, as he’d drive his truck to fuel up farm equipment during planting and harvest while still meeting other fuel needs during the year.
“I’d see how the fields were looking. It’s just so pretty. The smell of the corn when they’re picking and just talking to farmers,” Bill said. “My job was to make sure everybody was happy and able to run.”
If he received a call that a combine needed fuel, even after hours, he would respond.
“You do what it takes to get it done,” he said.
As for retirement, Bill and his wife of 43 years, Barb, are planning a trip to Alaska. They have two grown sons, A.J. and Adam, who are both married and have provided Bill and Barb with a combined six grandchildren, all of whom live nearby.
“I’ve never been gone more than seven days from (the station),” Bowman said. “It will definitely be a change.”