-by Greg Hoots-
I was born at Christa Hogan Hospital in West Plains, Missouri in the middle of the 1950s. I don’t remember any of the event, although my mother had a good recollection of the day. In fact, I once showed her a postcard which bore a photo of the hospital, and she pointed to the window of the room where she stayed during my birth. Dr. Callahan delivered me, and the total bill for the prenatal care, the doctor’s fee, and the hospital stay was $75.
Another memory of the day which my mom shared with me was that her best friend, Dorotha Reavis, babysat my older brother and sister while my mom was at the hospital for my birth. Harry and Dorotha Reavis were my parents’ closest friends during my childhood, and my memories of them are rich with detail and fondness.
When I was about three years old, one Saturday while we were visiting with the Reavis family, Dorotha invited my mom and us kids to join Dorotha, and her daughters, Pat and Cherie, for Sunday School and church the following day at the Second Baptist Church on St. Louis Street in West Plains. I believe that Daddy drove us to the church that next morning, and my mom, my brother, my sister, and I piled out of the car and entered the small white frame building. Dorotha, Pat, and Cherie were already there, and we took our seats beside them. They opened the service with a prayer and a song and a short address from the preacher.
Then, it was time for the children to be separated from the adults to attend Sunday School classes. I had not foreseen that turn of events, and I was terrified to be torn from my mom’s side. I started sobbing, and when my mom and Dorotha tried to explain that the kids went to their own classes, my sobbing escalated to an uncontrollable crying and screaming. When it became obvious to my mom that I would not be quieted, she rose and carried me from the church, taking me outside where she and I spent the remainder of the service in the parking lot.
To the best of my recollection, Mama didn’t scold nor punish me for my behavior at the church, but as the next Sunday approached, I recall her saying, “I think Gregory is too little to go to church. He can stay with Daddy this Sunday.” Soon, I would learn what Daddy did on Sunday mornings.
We all piled in the car, like the previous week, but this time I wasn’t dressed in my “good clothes.” After we dropped off the rest of the family at the church, Daddy and I drove away, and he said, “I need to get some gas.” In about two minutes we turned down 1st Street and Daddy guided the well-used Pontiac to the pumps of Phelps Oil Company. As we neared the gas pumps, we drove over a rubber hose which was strung across the station’s driveway, activating a bell to alert the attendant that a customer had arrived. I recall how fascinated and delighted I was to hear the clang of the bell the instant our tires crossed the hose.
The front door of the station opened, and daddy’s close friend, Harry Reavis came out of the station, greeting my dad with a “Hey, Carl,” as my dad held up two fingers and said, “Give me two-dollars-worth, Harry.” The fuel tank filler on the Pontiac was under the license plate, and Harry propped the plate down with the gas cap as he inserted the nozzle into the filler-tube and began filling the tank with gas. Phelps Oil sold both regular and ethyl gasoline, and they offered kerosene and “white gas” from hand-pumped tanks located in the basement of the warehouse. Daddy’s cars always ran on regular, and in 1958, it sold for about seventeen-cents per gallon. Two dollars went a long way.
The station was busy, although I’m not sure that it was officially open on Sundays. As soon as we got our gas, Daddy pulled away from the pumps, making a U-turn to park the car across the street from the station. “Come on in,” Daddy said, holding the car door open for me to slide out behind him, and then he extended his hand to me. I gripped his little finger with my hand, and he led me across the street and up to the front door of the station. There were four pumps in the front driveway, two on each island, along with a water faucet and air hoses. The station was built of glazed blocks and there were big picture windows on each side of the front door.
We stepped inside the station, and we barely got the door closed when Daddy asked me, “Do you want a pop?” At that time, everyone in our family indulged in the luxury of drinking one soda pop each night, usually when we were watching television. Daddy always liked Pepsi. To have a pop at 9:00 am on Sunday morning was like the 4th of July, and I replied with a resounding, “you bet!” The pop cooler was a large, red, chest-type affair of the Coca-Cola brand, and when one raised either of the two cooler lids, rows of soda pop hung on rails suspended in cool air. One would take a pop, move it along the rail to the edge of the machine where it could be lifted from the cooler. It wasn’t a coin-operated cooler, instead, one would give the station owner, Charles Phelps, or the attendant a nickel, but more commonly, the customer would just toss the nickel on the marble tray above the cash register drawer. I had Nu-Grape on my first visit to Charlie’s station.
As we got our soda pops, from behind us a voice asked, “well, who’s this?” My dad turned around to see Charlie Phelps at his desk in the corner. “This is my number-two son, Gregory.” In his Ozark dialect Daddy pronounced my name with just two syllables, “GREG-gree.” Charlie stood up. He was tall and lean, and impeccably dressed in navy blue pants and matching shirt, and a leather jacket, and he wore a cowboy hat atop his head. “Well, well,” Charlie mulled, “I’m glad to meet you,” he said to me, grinning. I guess most folks in West Plains called the station owner, Charles. I’ve heard people refer to him as Charles Edward, as his father was Charles Chester Phelps. But my dad had known Charlie since 1927, and he had always called him Charlie. They were very good friends.
Inside, the station was a kid’s paradise. Next to the pop cooler in the northwest corner of the room was a Tom’s nuts and candy cabinet. It had a glass door, and the sides were painted white and were hand-lettered with the red Tom’s logo, and it held nuts, candy bars and gum for sale. In the southwest corner of the station, Charlie had a desk and from there, a display counter extended toward the center of the room. A brass cash register sat on the far end of the counter. There were shelves along the back wall that contained oil, gas additives, and a variety of automotive-related products. In the east end of the station was a cast iron woodstove, and positioned around the stove were a half-dozen cane-bottomed chairs and a couple of tiny identical chairs for kids. On the east side of the front door was a metal rack where used oil cans were placed upside down, and the remaining oil on the inside of the can would eventually drain to the bottom of the rack to a recovery can. Next to the rack, leaning on the window ledge, was a portrait of an Indian that had been created by a sharpshooter who had fired rifle bullets into a 20×24-inch steel plate from some distance, creating the profile outline of the Native American.
Like my dad, Charlie Phelps collected Indian artifacts and old fruit jars and often there were examples of each on display in the station. It wasn’t unusual for my dad to take his weekend’s arrowhead finds to the station on Monday to show Charlie.
Every morning when the station opened, the attendant would move three items outside. A large metal S & H Green-stamps sign on a stand, an Anco wiper blade display, and a homemade wooden cage were placed in front of the station. The cage was about 18-inches square, made of wood with a wire top, and it sat atop four legs, making the whole affair about 30-inches tall. The cage was carefully lettered on the sides and front, “Caution, Beware of Baby Rattler.” When one would peer into the top of the cage, there was a baby’s rattle nestled into a bed of grass clippings. At the end of each day, the attendant who closed the station moved the three displays inside the building for the night. On days when it rained, the “snake box” stayed inside the station. Today, the “Baby Rattler” cage is displayed at the Harlin Museum in West Plains.
I learned that on most Sunday mornings there were a half-dozen or so guys just loafing at Charlie’s station. Some fellows were fueling their vehicles before departing to the lake for fishing or arrowhead hunting, while some guys were just passing a little time visiting with their friends. I soon became the mascot of the group.
Phelps Sign Co.
Directly behind the station was a large metal building. In the basement level of the warehouse, the station stored its new tires and used tires, and there was a tire changing machine and small shop just inside the doorway. The entrance to the main floor of the warehouse was located Lincoln Street on the west side, and here Charlie Phelps painted signs and did lettering on large trucks. Across 1st Street to the north, Charlie owned a small building where he performed front-end alignments on vehicles and also did painting. This building had an overhead door, and Charlie did a lot of pickup-truck lettering in that building.
Charles Phelps’ beginning as a sign-painter was an unusual one. Arguably, he was “discovered” as an artist. Immediately after high school graduation, Charles landed a job at Redwine Oil Company in West Plains, and shortly after starting the job, the owner of the station, John Redwine, instructed Charles to take a can of paint and paint Redwine’s name and the gross weight of the vehicle on the side of the station owner’s new pickup truck. At that time, Missouri state law required that every truck have the owners name, city of origin and weight displayed on the side of the truck. Charles set to the task, and it wasn’t long before he returned to the station to announce that the job was done. Redwine went outside to inspect Phelps’ work, and he was shocked. It looked as if a professional painter had done the work. Everyone who saw Redwine’s truck commented on the exceptional lettering, and many truck owners inquired as to where he had the work done. Redwine explained that Charles Phelps had done the lettering, and it wasn’t long before customers were bringing their trucks to Phelps to have them lettered. Phelps Signs was born.
Charles Phelps was a talented artist. He could paint almost anything. Most impressive was his ability as a sign-painter. He had an extraordinary eye which allowed him to look at a logo or company mascot and then paint it on the door of a truck or the side of a building with exactness. Once, while visiting my mom in West Plains in the mid-1990s, I stopped at Phelps Sign Company to see Charlie. He was in the big metal building, painting signs, as usual. Charlie was in his late 70s, but he seemed as sharp as ever. By this time, Charles Phelps had been in business on 1st Street for sixty years, and I was in awe of his talent. “Look at this,” he said, extending his hand with the paint brush toward me. A tremor was visible. “See it shake? But look, when I paint, it disappears,” Charlie said, and he began lettering the sign, and his hand was a steady as that of a twenty-year-old. “You know how I do that?” he asked, grinning broadly. “When I paint, I just shake my hand the other direction, and it stays perfectly steady.” He stopped his work, placed his brush in cleaner, and said, “Let me show you something.” He produced several photo albums, containing hundreds of photographs of signs that he had painted on trucks, billboards, and buildings in West Plains. The albums were a cross between an artist’s portfolio and a business directory of West Plains.
Charlie was born on February 6, 1917 in West Plains, the son Dr. Charles Chester Phelps and Elizabeth Jones Phelps. Charlie’s parents moved to West Plains from Gallatin, Missouri in 1915, and his dad had established a successful medical practice on the Court Square. Charlie attended school in West Plains, graduating with the class of 1935.
On March 30, 1935, Charlie married Agnes Reavis, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. L. A. Reavis of West Plains. Agnes was Harry Reavis’ aunt. Charlie and Agnes went to Alton, Missouri where they were wed. Immediately after graduation from high school in May of 1935, Charlie went to work for John Redwine at Redwine Oil Company, located in the same station where I met Charlie nearly twenty-five years later. That same year, Charlie began his career as a sign painter. He was a natural.
Daddy had known Charlie since childhood. Both men had been born in West Plains, five years apart. I recall Daddy saying, in Charlie’s presence, “When I met Charlie, he was twice as old as I was. Now he is just five years older than I am. At this rate, I’ll be ahead of him soon.” When Daddy graduated from West Plains High School in 1939, he went to work at Redwine Oil Company as a bookkeeper, and by that time, Charles Phelps was the station manager.
By 1961, I was a “regular” at Phelps Oil Co. If Daddy didn’t buy me a bottle of Nu-Grape soda when we came in the door, then frequently Charlie would “set me up” with a cold bottle of pop. One cold morning, Daddy and I stopped at the station for some gas and conversation, and as soon as we entered the station, Charlie pulled Daddy aside and whispered something to him. Charlie seemed really excited; he was grinning and kind of nervous and jumpy. He had his camera sitting on the counter beside the cash register, and he was fiddling with it, expanding the bellows and loading it with film. It was a pretty fancy large-format camera, and I was staring at it in awe.
As soon as he finished with the camera, Charlie went behind the counter and lifted a big white box with a ribbon around it from the floor. He walked around the counter and squatted down in front of me, and said, “I have something for you.” I was so surprised, and now, I was just as excited as Charlie was. I pulled the ribbon from the box and lifted the lid, and inside, nestled in white tissue paper was the finest felt hat that I had ever seen. “Try it on,” Charlie said, grinning from ear to ear. I put the hat on my head, and it fit perfectly. Now, it was a real toss-up as to who was more pleased, me or Charlie. “Come on outside, I want to take your picture,” Charlie said, camera in hand, as I followed him out the door. Charlie positioned me on the west end of the driveway, and he stood back a few paces, squatted slightly, and said, “Say, cheese.” I grinned at him through the lens.
I didn’t take the hat off for two years.
While it was during the winter that Charlie gave me the hat, I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a Christmas present. That just added to the surprise of the event. I recall that I felt really special that Charlie had given me such a nice present for no particular occasion. As one can see, the day still remains clear in my memory, almost sixty years later.
Christmas in July
When I was about eight years old, one morning in the middle of summer, Daddy mentioned casually that Charlie was going to come to our house that day to “bring some toys that he wants to give to you.” It was a lazy part of the summer. The 4th of July was over, and the hot dog-days were just around the corner. This was some excitement. “What are the toys for?” I wanted to know. “Well, Charlie is cleaning out his garage, and he has some old toys that his kids used to play with before they grew up, and he wants to give them to you,” Daddy explained. I was so excited, thinking about what Charlie might be bringing us.
I took a position in the side yard where I could watch for Charlie’s truck coming down the street. As we lived half-way down a dead-end street, I only had to watch for traffic from one direction. In the early 1960s, Mama worked at Butler Furniture Co. on Washington Avenue, and each day at lunch, Daddy would drive there, and they would come home for lunch. In the hour between 12 and 1, Mama would fix a meal, serve it, and eat and sometimes wash all of the dishes and do some other chores before returning to work. After lunch, I resumed my watch from yard, feeling like a kid waiting for Santa on Christmas eve.
It was about 2:00 pm when I saw Daddy’s yellow and white 1959 Ford turn down Olive Street, and behind him was Charlie Phelps’ trademark dark blue pickup truck. Charlie backed into the driveway, and by that time, I was at his tailgate. We greeted each other, and Charlie remarked how glad he was that I could take all of this stuff off his hands. He grinned and said, “Agnes will be really happy that I finally cleaned out the garage!” We didn’t even have a garage, but I was really glad that I could help him.
Daddy, Charlie, and I formed a sort of bucket brigade with Charlie on the back of the truck handing stuff down to us. We carried everything down the sidewalk and just stacked it on the front porch. The bed of his truck was full, and I could not have been happier. Charlie seemed to take some delight in my enthusiasm for the toys. I was playing with them as I carried them down the sidewalk. There were metal toy cars and trucks of all kinds, airplanes, and more items than I can even recall. I remember that there was a 10-inch square, tin Jack-in-the-Box which played the “Pop Goes the Weasel” song as one turned a crank, and at the end of the song, a colorful clown jumped out of the box.
I thanked Charlie more than once, and when his truck pulled out of the driveway, I ran down to the porch to go through the many boxes of toys. I spent the rest of the afternoon carefully examining the contents of each box.
The most prized toy of all was a 10-inch wooden Chris Craft boat which contained an electric inboard motor with a brass shaft, prop, and rudder. The boat had a brass rail along the upper deck, and it was powered by a single C-cell battery. It may have been originally built from a model kit, but when I got it, the boat was seaworthy and ready to go. I would “borrow” a battery from one of our flashlights and walk across the road to Guy Buck’s pond where I’d launch the boat, setting the rudder to steer it in a broad circle. I had a long cane pole that I used to retrieve the boat when the battery expired while the craft was farther than an arm’s reach. I played with it for years until its seams split as the glue dried after years of use and winter storage. When the battery was fresh, the boat would pull away from the shore quickly, leaving a large wake behind it, as it made circles in the pond. It was just the best.
Phelps Oil Company
Charles and Agnes Phelps were married about two months before Charles graduated from West Plains High School. The Journal Gazette, a West Plains newspaper dated May 8, 1935 profiled members of the senior class of 1935, and gave these details of Charles Edward Phelps, “Born at West Plains, Mo., February 6, 1917. Favorite study—Bookkeeping. Plans for next year—Undecided…Outside activities—football, basketball, track, Senior play, Junior play.”
Charles undoubtedly had some plans for the following year, as he went to work for Redwine Oil Company in West Plains immediately after graduation from high school. At the same time, he began his sign-painting business, Phelps Sign Co. By 1939, Charles had become manager of Redwine’s station as John Redwine neared retirement.
When World War II began in December of 1941, Charles was an established businessman in West Plains with a wife and young son, Charles Edward Phelps, Jr. In December of 1942, Charles was named a Periodic Tire Inspector for Howell County, appointed by the War Price and Rationing Board No. 46. Because of the rationing of tires, new Federal law required that “between December 1, 1942 and January 31, 1943, the tires on every passenger car must be inspected by an authorized OPA inspector. All commercial vehicles must be inspected every sixty days or every 5,00 miles, which ever occurs sooner.” The Journal Gazette of December 3, 1942 described the duties of the inspectors, “The periodic tire inspector is one of the vital agents in the national mileage rationing program for conserving our limited supply of rubber, and on him rests a great deal of the responsibility for realizing the maximum benefit from its use in the war program. It is very important that the tire inspectors know their jobs and are faithful to the great trust which has been placed upon them.”
When the war was over, Charles Phelps officially leased and later purchased the Redwine Oil Co. property, becoming the new owner of the business. The April 26, 1945 edition of The Journal Gazette reported on the change of ownership, “Charles E. Phelps has leased the Redwine Oil Station. He has worked and been manager there for the past nine and a half years. His taking over the station was effective on the 21st of April.”
For a couple of years, Charles maintained the station’s name as Redwine Oil Company. A Christmas advertisement in the West Plains Journal of December 23, 1946 listed the business name as Redwine Oil Co., Chas. Phelps. By 1950, the name had officially changed to Phelps Oil Company, and Charlie painted the new name on the base of the gable on the north side of the station building. In 1951 Charles and Agnes’ second child, Charlene was born.
As an independent gasoline dealer, Charles Phelps purchased his gasoline by the fuel-tanker load, and he would set his own price at the pump. After the end of World War II, fuel became more readily available, and as many independent stations were operating, there were frequent gas wars where stations competed for business by carefully monitoring the competition’s prices, and undercutting them by a few cents per gallon. The competition then usually responded to the drop in price by reducing their own prices. In the 1960s, Phelps began representing the Vickers brand, a Kansas oil company with a refinery in Oklahoma. While Vickers offered competitive prices for their affiliated stations, as an independently owned company, Phelps was able to continue to buy loads of fuel on the market.
Charles Phelps employed a lot of young men during his years at Phelps Oil Co. and at Redwine Oil Co. before that. My first memories of Harry Reavis were when he was working at Charlie’s station. In the early 1960s, Harry left his job at Phelps Oil Co. to work as a welder for his father-in-law, Estes Newberry. Harry’s younger brother, Frank, worked at Phelps Oil before starting his career at Howell-Oregon Electrical Cooperative. Over the years, Charles Phelps employed quite a few men at the station. One man who worked for Charlie for many years was Herman Bennett. My folks really liked Herman. My mom liked that he was meticulous in cleaning the windshield, side windows and back glass while fueling the car. Herman was meticulous in his appearance, as well, always wearing clean and freshly pressed uniforms. His jet-black hair was always well-groomed, with every hair in place. Herman was a hard worker and a really nice guy.
Another West Plains man who worked for Phelps Oil for a while after high school was a guy named Buddy Rhoads. I remember the first time I met Buddy. It was in the summer of 1963, and Daddy and I had stopped at the station for some gas and gab, and Buddy was there, and he asked my dad what he was doing that night. It was Saturday, and Buddy was going to the stock car races that night, and he wanted to know if my dad and I wanted to go with him. Buddy was quite a bit younger than my dad, and he was a handsome guy with a great smile, a head of curly blonde hair, and a fast car. I think the car was a 1957 Buick, and it had loud mufflers and he could light-up the back tires. Daddy looked down at me and said, “do you want to go to the races?” I said, “sure”, although I had never seen cars racing.
Buddy came by our house on his way to the race track, and I thought his car was so neat. It was a two-door model, and I sat in the middle of the back seat while my dad rode in the front passenger seat. I don’t believe it had seat belts. I don’t know how fast Buddy was driving, but I thought that we were really flying. We drove out K-Highway and then turned onto KK-Highway to reach the track. Then, we came over a hill, and a ticket-seller was at the edge of the road, taking admission. It was nearing dusk, and the red-clay track sat down in a little valley, and the “grandstands” consisted of 2×12-inch boards sitting on concrete blocks on the hillside overlooking the track. There was a haze of burnt oil and gasoline hanging over the track, visible as we drove into a pasture where spectators parked. We found a place to sit, and I was enthralled by the cars, the sounds, the smells, and the view. It was nothing like I had ever imagined. For years, Daddy and I continued to go to the stock car races virtually every Saturday night. The first speedway we attended was a quarter-mile dirt track on KK-Highway, and the next West Plains track was a paved quarter-mile track on North 63-Highway. The final venue where we attended races was a half-mile dirt track near Pomona, located next to the West Plains drag strip.
In the early 1960s, one of our favorite drivers at the West Plains racetracks was a man named Noah Alsup who owned and drove a stock car sponsored by Phelps Oil Co. and Phelps Sign Co. I’m not sure what was involved in sponsorship, but Alsup’s race car was always the nicest looking car on the track, thanks to Charlie’s skills as a painter. The car was painted the Phelps signature navy blue with “Phelps Oil Co.” lettered in yellow on the rear fenders.
I purchased my first gasoline in 1971, just prior to the great fuel crisis of the 1970s. I believe it was selling for 20-cents a gallon when I pulled to the pump at Phelps Oil for the first time, and Herman Bennett pumped the gas into the tank and washed the windows. Within two years, things in the oil business changed dramatically. The price of gasoline skyrocketed, causing America’s automobile manufacturers to create such cars as the Ford Pinto, the Chevrolet Vega, and the four-cylinder Mustang. The man who was caught in the middle of the “fuel crisis” was Charles Phelps. He found himself unable to purchase fuel on the open market, and none of the big oil suppliers would guarantee any supplies of fuel to him.
On Saturday, May 5, 1973 the unthinkable happened. Charles Phelps closed his station located on West 1st Street in West Plains after 37 years in business. In a front-page story appearing in The West Plains Daily Quill of May 7, 1973, Phelps speaks to the closing of his station. A story by Dan French of the Quill Staff reports, “The first station to close in West Plains as a result of the gasoline shortage shut its doors Saturday night. Charles Phelps, owner of Phelps Service Station at 220 West First, says he has been unable to gain assurances from any supplier of a continuing supply of gasoline and had been promised only a 60 percent allocation of supplies he has been receiving, and then only on a temporary basis.” When asked his plans for the future, Phelps replied that he planned to “paint a little, fish a little, and live a little.”
When Charles Phelps closed Phelps Oil Company in 1973, he was 56-years-old. Charlie’s expertise as a sign painter was still in great demand in West Plains, and indeed, Charlie continued to “paint a little” for the next 24 years. In fact, at the time of his closing of the station, Charlie was the best in the business as a sign painter.
In Charlie’s last year in business, he painted a sign for me, it’s perhaps the last sign he painted which is still in existence. At 80-years old, Charlie demonstrated the same dedication to detail in painting as he had always exhibited in his work. When I went to his shop in early 1997 to pick-up the sign, it was the last time I ever saw Charlie Phelps, and it was my last visit to Phelps Oil Co. and Phelps Sign Co. Charles Phelps passed away on September 28, 2001.
After his retirement in 1997, there was an auction at the Phelps businesses. My mom attended the auction, and she purchased three of Charlie’s sawhorses on which he painted signs, and she gifted the three wooden platforms to me. Over the years, Charlie had cleaned excessive paint from his brushes on the legs of the sawhorses.
In the early 2003, I was visiting my mom in West Plains, and I took time to visit another old friend, Roy Hathcock. Roy was a longtime friend, teacher, and mentor to me, and I was one of the lucky people that Roy invited to view his amazing Native American artifact collection.
As we visited, we were talking about Charlie, and I remarked that my mom had given me three sawhorses which she bought at the auction. Roy took me into the next room and said, “look over there”. Across the room stood two more of Charles Phelps’ sawhorses that Roy had purchased from the same auction! It’s a small world.