Service station fueled by family's hard work ELLICOTT CITY/ELKRIDGE

April 12, 1993|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

Peter Reichardt would later remember the Christmas Eve 1947 opening of his Esso station in Ellicott City as auspicious.

A supervisor at a Baltimore defense plant, he four years earlier had purchased two acres at Frederick Road and Route 40 to build a house and a side business -- Reichardt's Esso, a "little country filling station." Route 40 was a two-lane highway, devoid of shopping centers.

Although he was still two months from his planned opening date that holiday eve, he decided he could wait no longer.

"It was fantastic," he said. "I had a long line of people [waiting for gas] who were going toward Frederick. In those days, very few gas stations were open on Christmas Eve. I was counting money hand-over-fist . . . I decided to leave my toolbox behind me, and I didn't report back to work on the following Monday.

"The next morning I got up and opened at 6 a.m., ready to see these cars coming in. I saw one car in the morning and three later in the evening . . . I was sick," he said.

Whatever struggles he encountered, five decades later the business is strong and being managed by a third generation.

Reichardt's Esso -- now Neubauer's Exxon -- has evolved under the management of Mr. Reichardt's son-in-law and grandson to become a five-bay, super-modern computer-assisted station.

Al Nash, 62, just retired from Neubauer's last week after 26 years.

"Technology has passed me by," he said. "There's a $40,000 computer now. In the beginning, there were just three mechanics and we did everything."

The family patriarch relishes stories of the station's early days.

He started with two bays to service cars, but business was often slow. In the days when gasoline cost 26 to 32 cents a gallon, a farmer or an occasional family out for a Sunday drive "to the country" might be his only patrons.

"I tried a new approach [to lure customers]," he said. "I would park my car in front of the station with a gas nozzle in the tank. When I saw a car coming, I would say a prayer . . . the first year, we almost broke even."

Business slowly improved, spurred mostly by new Ellicott City neighborhoods such as nearby Font Hill. The station grew to four employees.

"The pumps were different then. I turned the gasoline on and stood by the tank and poured it in," Mr. Reichardt said. "After hanging the hose up, I would wash the windows and the headlights and check the oil. I did it in snow, rain and lightning. There was no cover."

He teamed up with his son-in-law, William Neubauer, in 1957 just before the development boom began in western Howard County. "I couldn't even leave the place, I got so involved," Mr. Reichardt said. Customers purchased tires and batteries. A car (with a full tank) was available for people whose cars were being serviced, and stamps were distributed that entitled the holder to 3 cents off each gallon of gas.

He sold the building, house and grounds to Exxon in 1971, and Mr. Neubauer became sole owner of the business. The next year, both the house and station were torn down to make way for a larger, modern, ranch-style station named "Neubauer's Exxon" that had 12 to 15 employees. Among them was Mr. Neubauer's teen-aged son Jimmy, who stocked soda machines and did other chores.

Four years ago, Jimmy Neubauer, now 31, bought the business from his father and has updated it since. There's an air-conditioned front sales room and snack shop, 22 employees, and a canopy that keeps the station's 2,500 regular customers protected from the weather while filling their tanks themselves. With a press of a finger, customers indicate by computer whether to pay by credit or cash. About 50 cars per day are repaired there. The amount of gas Mr. Reichardt used to pump in a month -- 5,000 gallons -- is easily pumped in a day now.

"The basic things have remained -- treating the customer fairly and individually," said Joan McCrumb, a Centennial High teacher who has been a customer for about 20 years.

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