Always Look to Imperial for the Best!

Over 100 years of Your Friendly Neighbourhood Gas Station

By Bill Trbovich

Within the next 13 years, one of the most iconic and recognizable buildings in communities across Canada will begin to disappear – your friendly neighbourhood gas station. By 2035, the federal government will ban gasoline powered engines in the name of protecting our environment and the planet for that matter. The need for the gas station as we know it will cease to exist!

Gas stations have been part of the fabric of the community for more than one hundred of the 150 years the Town of Durham has existed. The oil companies have changed over the years, Shell, Regent, Imperial Oil better known for its main product, ESSO, Texaco, Ultramar, White Rose, BA or British American, are ones that come to mind. The service they provide has changed with the times too. Initially if you had a car, you depended upon the local gas station for just about anything connected to your automobile. Not only gasoline, but oil, brakes, batteries, tune ups, tires, free air for those tires…yes I did say free air, back then you didn’t have to feed coins into a machine, every gas station had a free air pump. If your tire took a nail, you took it to the gas station to have your tire vulcanized. No it had nothing to do with Vulcans and Star Trek, vulcanizing was the process used to remove the nail from the tire, insert a  rubber plug and refill the tire with air and you were on your way! This was just part of the service offered…for a fee of course. However you had a service station attendant pump your gas: what’s known today as full service, he also checked your oil, checked your air pressure in your tires cleaned your windows and all of this was free of charge, except for the gas of course.

Robert Evans built this garage in the south end of Durham in 1920
Photo courtesy of Darlene Hastie

In 1920, Robert Evans of Owen Sound built a garage and sold Shell gasoline on the current site of the Home Hardware store in the south end of town on Highway Six. Ten years later he sold it to Charlie Graham who expanded the garage, adding two service bays as well as adding an apartment upstairs. Charlie sold the operation to Ralph Miller in 1950 and the product line changed from Shell to Regent gasoline.

Ralph Miller delivered Regent Home heating oil to the residents of Durham.
Photo courtesy of Darlene Hastie

Miller installed a bulk storage tank for Regent gas and oil. Back in the 1950’s oil and coal were the main methods of heating your home and Ralph Miller delivered home heating oil to the residents of Durham. Walter Kingston was the chief mechanic who ran the garage and a small convenience store was added, something that would be commonplace at almost every gas station across the country. Over the next two to three years, the station and garage changed hands many times. Ralph Miller sold the operation to Jack Waines in1954, who sold it to Bernard Cole in 1955.

Texaco came to Durham when Bob Small bought the Shell station in the south end of Durham in 1957.
Photo courtesy of Darlene Hastie

You can trust your car to the man who wears the Star!

Bob Small bought the operation from Bernard Cole in 1957 and with it yet another change in the product sold as Texaco replaced Shell in the pumps! It was Bob Small’s Texaco for the next six years before changing ownership yet again to become Jim Reaburn’s Texaco in 1963 and in 1966 it became Bob Lunn’s Texaco for the next ten years with Butch Graham handling home heating oil delivery from 1966 until 1979.

The two cars in front of the pumps belong to Richard Newell and Gerald Eden, that’s Robert Wilson pumping gas.
Photo courtesy of Darlene Hastie

Local gas stations were often good community citizens, sponsoring baseball and hockey teams or in the case of Bob Lunn, sponsoring Don Lunn’s stock car, #66, that raced at the Varney Speedway. In 1977 it became known as Neff’s South End Texaco under the ownership of Bev Neff with Bob Thompson running the garage and Raymond Chub Hopkins delivering home heating oil until 1978 when ownership was taken over by former employee Pete Talbot.

Photo courtesy of Durham Chronicle and Darlene Hastie

Until the station closed in 1983 it was known as either the Triple Three Garage or Pete Talbot’s Texaco and Towing. Pete’s right hand man was Durham native Harry Ransome, who later became a painter of local renown and mouse detection duties around the garage were handled by the station Mascot, Sparky the Cat.

There are only three gas outlets left in Durham in 2022, two are self-serve – basically convenience stores with gas pumps. At the east end of town on Highway Four stands the last full service station in Durham – Eckhardt’s Shell & Variety & Lunchroom. In 1973 when brothers Art and Phil Eckhardt purchased the current location, Durham boasted 13 outlets dispensing fuel including three Shell Stations! For the sum of $21,000, the brothers secured a loan from a local bank, a mortgage from the former owner, the Chapman family and put up $500 each of their own money and bought the business which they have run for 49 years. Eckhardt’s is a full service station, they pump the gas, they’ll check you oil and clean your windows if you ask them and while they’re pumping your gas, you can sample the best butter tarts in Grey County! You see part of the convenience in stopping here lies inside. Not only can you get convenience store items like soft drinks, chips and lottery tickets but you can purchase home-made baked goods that are second to none. If you want vegetable boxes with fresh produce, Eckhardt’s has them.

Photo by author

The adjacent Eckhardt’s Lunch room offered home-made meals which were extremely popular until the Covid 19 Pandemic shut it down in 2020. Perhaps next to gas, information is the valued product here and I say that tongue in cheek! On any given week day between 10 am and noon, you can find out what’s going on in Durham by simply sitting or standing inside Eckhardt’s with a cup of coffee. It’s the time for local patrons to gather, to discuss everything from politics to who had just pulled a calf at a nearby farm! “I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the statements I’ve heard over the years, but there’s no shortage of opinions exchanged in front of this counter,” said Phil Eckhardt.

Art Eckhardt has pumped gas with his brother Phil at this location for 49 years, it’s the last full serve gas station in Durham.
Photo by author

But enjoy it while you can because like all good things, nothing lasts forever. “When we bought this place, our goal was to stay in business for fifty years”, said Art Eckhardt. “I’m 74 now and next year will be fifty years, perhaps it’s time to finally retire.” When that day comes it will mark the end of an era.