2 April 2011

Classical gas: Randy's Olde Towne Service links to the past

You can take the man out of the gas station, but… well, actually, you can’t.

Anyone who remembers when Randy’s Olde Towne Service was called Crandall’s Super Service will tell you: You simply cannot talk about the historic gas station without also speaking about its longtime owner.

In fact, memories of Curley Crandall, who died in August 1995, seem to be everywhere in the beautifully preserved building located on the corner of Eighth and Union Streets in Traverse City, Mich. Need tangible evidence? Look no further than one of the doors, where the metal portion along the bottom is concave from all the times Curley kicked it open to rush out and pump gas for a customer.

“We left that because we thought it was a pretty neat reminder of Curley,” said owner Randy Schmerheim, who purchased the station from Crandall in the early 1990s. “He was always quick to help people. To him, it was more about the people than anything else. He didn’t call it ‘Super Service’ for nothing.”

Schmerheim saw Crandall’s love for his customers first hand, as a competitor and later as his employer. Schmerheim and Crandall owned neighboring businesses in the late 1980s; Schmerheim ran a Shell station across the street from Crandall’s Mobil. When Crandall decided to shut down his fuel pumps in 1992, he leased his building to Schmerheim and then began working for him – pumping gas, of course.

“He wanted to work for nothing, but I just couldn’t do that,” Schmerheim said. “He enjoyed staying busy. I offered to let him work just a few hours a week, but he was there every morning. You could set your clock to him.”

Crandall worked at 501 South Union Street most of his life. As a teenager, he was hired at the classically styled art-deco service station – then known as Mac’s Super Station – shortly after it opened in 1935. According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Curley and his brother, Max, assumed management of the building in 1938 and eventually purchased it in 1943. Curley became sole owner 17 years later when Max started his own business – another Traverse City landmark, Max’s Service.

Curley grew up in the automotive service industry, working for his father, Chum, who operated his own Sinclair service station south of the city. In turn, as teenagers Curley’s daughters, Nancy and Liz, labored for their dad. Nancy worked at her father’s other business, a distributing company, while Liz handled office duties at the service station.

“No matter who he hired, he always outworked them all,” Liz Rollert said. “He was always the first one to the pump because he wanted to greet the people when they pulled up.”

“I don’t think my dad ever walked anywhere,” Nancy added. “He was always on a slow run.”

Liz said some of her earliest and fondest childhood memories are of the service station.

“We lived just a half a block away, and I’d push my baby buggy down there to see my dad,” she said. “I’d sit on a pile of tires and talk with him. I was always out back in the garage. I loved the smells.”

She and her sister also loved the candy suckers her dad carried with him everywhere. They weren’t the only ones.

“Kids flocked to my dad,” Nancy said. “He always had a pocketful of lollipops.”

Added Schmerheim: “By the time he worked for me, he was handing out suckers to the third generation. Some of these kids’ grandparents remember Curley giving them suckers when they were young.”

In addition to selling gasoline, Crandall’s Super Service offered “Washing, Greasing, Batteries, Tires’’ – it still says so, right there above the three large, roll-up garage doors, just as it has for 75 years. But the station’s most important asset was Curley. His daughters thought they knew why, but after his death they learned more reasons he was so beloved.

“People told us a lot of stories,” Nancy said. “If you didn’t have money for gas, Dad would say, ‘We can settle up on payday.’ When the migrant workers were ready to go south, he wouldn’t let them drive away on bad tires. He’d make sure they were safe. He carried people on credit without anything more than a handshake. Not even an IOU. And he never told anyone this stuff. He just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. He was a pretty neat guy.”

In 1987, Curley’s station was named to the State Register of Historic Places. The citizens of Traverse City, Mich., knew it was special long before that.

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