Moscow's Enduring Slice Of Americana

June 22, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Blink and you'll miss Harry Shaw's gas station hard along an old two-lane highway which, on its way to several old mining towns, passes through the scattering of houses that comprise Moscow.

Take the time to drive on what is now called Route 935 up to one of three pumps under an overhanging roof, and you likely would see Harry Shaw emerge from the small brick building to pump your gas and offer a friendly hello.

Mr. Shaw's been pumping gas here since he was a teen-ager. He's 85 now, and away from the station for several days while he recovers from a broken hip hurt in a fall.

Shaw's Service Station, the only gas station between Lonaconing to the north and Westernport to the south, is an out-of-the-way kind of place, the kind of mom-and-pop operation that has all but disappeared, replaced by impersonal, self-serve gas stations.

Mr. Shaw's place is an enduring slice of Americana, where regulars pull up for gas, have the oil checked, windshields wiped and then put it on a tab. This is not a pay-first-then-pump-kind-of-place.

"Daddy's been here for years and years," says Ronnie Shaw, 57, who helps his father run the station. "We don't do the best business in the world, but we make a living."

Things used to be busier, before the state rerouted Route 36, the main road between Cumberland, Frostburg and Westernport on the Potomac River's north branch. These days, mostly locals stop by.

"There was a whole lot of traffic through here at one time," says Harry Shaw, who before his fall was found one day resting on a worn, cushioned chair behind a wood-framed glass counter in the station's lobby.

It's not long, though, before several women, sisters from North Carolina and Deep Creek Lake in neighboring Garrett County, stop in on their way to find their grandparents' graves, just up the hill. They buy $10 worth of gas, a couple of Cokes, marvel at how cool it is in the lobby and giggle after noticing a goose meandering around the place.

"Used to be three of them here," Mr. Shaw said. "Don't know what happened to the other two."

Stopping at the station, you might wonder the same thing about these kinds of gas stations -- the small buildings with the large overhangs out front that were once common along American roads and highways. The station here was built in 1920. A garage was added later.

Mr. Shaw's been here since Calvin Coolidge was president. First, he pumped Esso gasoline and then Exxon. He received an award from the company for 40 years of continuous service nearly 20 years ago. These days, gasoline comes from an independent oil company.

The widower has resisted pressure over the years to modernize. The pumps were upgraded years ago, though now outdated compared to today's high-tech, quick-fueling pumps with their credit card and debit machines.

Nothing much has changed inside either. A large stone fireplace dominates the lobby. It's no longer used. A wood-burning stove warms customers in the winter. Tires standin a corner. Cushioned chairs line a wall. The counter contains taffy, suckers and other candy.

Air filters, hose clamps, auto bulbs, oil -- those kinds of things are on shelves behind the counter, behind Harry's comfortable chair.

"We get quite a few regular customers here," says Ronnie Shaw, the resident mechanic who left his job as a machinist to help run the place 10 years ago. "You know who's who -- who's coming and going. We have a bunch who come in here every day, help make the coffee and [talk]."

Among the regulars is Jon Rosenberger, a salesman who pushes tire repair products, filters, chemicals and other wares. He's been stopping by for 18 years.

"It feels like home to me," says Mr. Rosenberger, relaxing in Harry's chair. "I was raised in a place something like this. A lot of these smaller stations have been forced out of business. You need big tanks these days, and if you don't sell volumes, you don't stay in business."

The younger Mr. Shaw estimates it would cost about a half-million dollars to modernize Shaw's -- too much for the family to spend to maintain a business along a road less-traveled.

"It ain't worth fooling with all those changes," he says.

John Ollen might agree. He's been coming here for years, too, since he was a boy and grew up in these parts. He can remember riding a sleigh down the hill in winter to visit his buddies at the gas station.

"I come in about every day," says Mr. Ollen, now retired from Frostburg State University. "I can remember coming here in the 1940s when gas was 18 cents and 19 cents a gallon. I remember a guy sitting right there and telling all of us that gas would be a dollar a gallon soon. I thought the guys were about to skin him alive. They didn't believe him."

These days, Shaw's sells gas for $1.28 a gallon and up.

The service station is more than a place to buy gas. Just ask Lester Dawson, a retired glass-cutter from Vale Summit, who also shows up about every day -- to pass the time.

"There aren't many places like this anymore," says Mr. Dawson, who pulls two Cokes out of the refrigerator and hands one to Ronnie Shaw. They sit in the cushioned chairs.

"Family gas stations are few and far between," he says. "Most places you have to pump your own gas anymore. And there aren't many places you can go and get something done to your car and know who is doing it."

"He's a good man," says Harry Shaw, pointing to Mr. Dawson. "He's a good man. Yeah."

Mr. Shaw is expected to be out of the hospital and back at his home across the street by mid-July.

And those who know him are certain he will not think of much more than getting back to the station.

"He wants to come back," said Ronnie Shaw. "There's no question."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.