No self-service here, just 50 years in the middle of things in Dayton

September 10, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Today, Lenny Hobbs gets his very own parade.

For 50 years, the 74-year-old has run Hobbs Service Station in the western Howard County hamlet of Dayton, a dusty local landmark where bubble gum still costs a penny, "self-service" is a four-letter word and regulars gather to discuss the Zen of fly fishing and the Tao of baseball.

At 12:30 p.m., Dayton's rural solitude will be broken by its first parade in memory: A marching band, children riding streamer-decked bicycles alongside their grandparents' antique cars and a banner declaring: "Dayton Honors Lenny Hobbs 50 Years of Service."

Completing the parade -- riding in the back of a friend's 1966 Mustang convertible and carrying a proclamation from Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- will be Mr. Hobbs.

"It's a well-deserved tribute," says Russell E. Smith, 33, a general contractor who stopped to buy gas last week at Mr. Hobbs' station on Ten Oaks Road. He still remembers sitting on a cinder block wall outside the station as a child and eating Mr. Hobbs' penny candy.

Suburbia may have intruded on Dayton, with its pricey subdivisions, white-collar commuters and their anxieties. But the station's whitewashed facade of cinder block -- and the sanctuary within -- haven't changed much.

For decades, Mr. Hobbs has stocked his handmade, pine-plank shelves with the same staples: cigars, chewing tobacco, handkerchiefs, combs and candy bars.

His business bears little resemblance to a modern gas-and-go station. When cars drive up, rubber tubes on both sides of the two gas pumps set off an old-fashioned double clang of a service bell.

"It's kind of a visit when you stop -- you catch up on the news," said Lee Pirro, a home-based businesswoman who has lived in Dayton 15 years and comes in to fuel her slate-blue Jaguar XJS. "It's really a country gas station."

Even the bathrooms were an afterthought: a small addition of rough-cut cinder block with two cubicles.

Much like the 20-year-old cans of Phillips 66 Premium Cleaner and Wax on the shelf and the inflatable Sinclair dinosaur on top of the Coke machine, Mr. Hobbs is a bit of relic himself, balking at the idea of self-service pumps.

"People going to work in the morning, they don't want to smell like gas, especially the women," he said. "Even the men."

Mr. Hobbs built the station in 1946, with the help of his wheelwright father, after returning from World War II in Europe and spending a summer playing professional baseball for the Boston Braves farm team in Mahoney City, Pa.

He never did major auto repairs, just routine work, such as changing tires and greasing axles. He also did tuneups, he says, "until they got all those electronic automobiles."

His remains a working service station. Mr. Hobbs pumps gas during the day, and Dave Simpson, who is young enough to be Mr. Hobbs' grandson, changes oil and tires at night and on Saturdays. And over the years, the place also has come to be Dayton's unofficial social center.

As far back as the late 1940s, the youth of the town would linger there with members of the Dayton Athletic Club baseball team. It was where they watched boxer Joe Louis prove he still had it in him, knocking out one opponent after another on one of Dayton's first television sets.

These days, some of those same people still hang out at the station. They're just older. Wednesday, a group sat in the station's circle of beat-up chairs, discussing the home run Cal Ripken hit the night he tied Lou Gehrig's record.

"That guy who caught the ball, he lived right up here in Sykesville," remarked Doug Merson, 64, a retired printer. Francis "Scooper" Brown, 83, and Bronson Thompson, 73, nodded in agreement. "Somebody offered him $2,500 for that ball. That's a lot of money."

Residents agree that today's parade honoring Mr. Hobbs is a milestone of sorts, the first parade anybody seems to remember taking place in the town.

"The biggest event was when Lenny got air conditioning -- after 50 years," said Jim Patterson, 65, who helps Mr. Hobbs pump gas.

Quite a breakthrough, considering that Mr. Hobbs' son, Ron, had been selling air-conditioning units next door for more than 17 years before his father agreed to the convenience. Mr. Hobbs' daughter, Susan, is with the U.S. Department of State and working on a doctorate.

After fighting off pneumonia this year, reaching the 50-year mark and riding in his own parade, some residents have been so bold as to suggest that Mr. Hobbs should take a rest.

But tomorrow at 5:15 a.m., when the first commuters roll up Ten Oaks Road, Mr. Hobbs will no doubt be there -- ready for another day at the center of Dayton's universe.

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