By Lois Bell
Sheridan Senior Center
SHERIDAN — If you pull into the Sheridan Farmer’s Co-op in Sheridan for gas, don’t be surprised when Harold Ruzila steps to your vehicle and asks what you want. He is Farmer Co-op’s gas attendant. His job is to fuel your vehicle, wash your windshield, check the air pressure in your tires and check your engine’s fluid levels if you wish. You can pay from your seat and not get out of your car if you don’t want to.
Ruzila’s presence at the pump is a reminder of times when such service was the standard in the United States.
“At first, about 1910, automobiles got gas from the grocery stores or local mercantile,” said Helen Laumann, a board member of the Sheridan County Museum. “As the number of cars increased, there was traffic congestion at the store. That’s when gas service was moved to an individual business.”
After the Standard Oil monopoly broke up there was more competition in the industry. Filling stations began to offer services such as checking the air in your tires, service under the hood and washing windows. The job of the gas station attendant emerged.
Drivers and passengers could remain seated throughout the process. The service attendant would show you the oil level on your dipstick and comment if the fluid level was within an acceptable range or recommend a quart if your oil was low. He would put the oil in your car for you.
The driver paid the attendant who would walk your payment to a cashier in the station and bring back your change. Being a gas station attendant required special training.
Service bays were added to gas stations and offered service work such as wheel rotation and balancing, brake work and more. The gas stations were now “full-service” stations.
During the 1960s, gas station owners tried to influence buyers to come in through gimmicks to collect sets of glasses, flatware and dishes. Customers would accumulate proofs of purchase — such as S&H green stamps — to trade in for product. Price wars emerged between stations.
The fuel crisis in the United States during the 1970s is credited with the rise of convenience stores with self-serve pumps and the demise of the full-service station. A generation of drivers accustomed to full-service learned to pump their own gas and subsequent generations knew no other way.
“In 1933 there were 14 gas stations in Sheridan,” Laumann said. “1970 was the peak year with 33 gas stations in Sheridan.”
Ruzila grew up during the cyclical growth and subsequent transformation of the gas station. He spent a number of years as a “lubrication technician” (as Ruzila calls himself) at Hammer Chevrolet before coming to Farmer’s Co-op 47 years ago.
Ruzila cultivated a love of automobiles, a compatible interest to his career. Ruzila enjoys his 1928 Ford Model A, a 1956 Chevy, a 2012 Mustang and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“I used to drag race in Greybull in the 1960s,” Ruzila said. “I even won a few trophies. We used to race at the Hawkins and Powers airstrip (there).” Ruzila raced in a 1962 Corvair.
Ruzila doesn’t race any more but he enjoys going to watch friends race at the track in Gillette.
“It’s a young man’s game,” Ruzila said.
“Sheridan used to have a race track over where the Wingate Hotel is now,” Ruzila said. “They moved the track over the hill. Racing here ended four or five years ago. The track is still there but it will take a lot of money to get racing going again here in Sheridan. I don’t think there’s a market for it.”
How do drivers not accustomed to an attendant react when Ruzila approaches their car?
“People are getting use to us,” Ruzila said, referring to his service at the gas pump. “We mostly get local people (at Farmer’s Co-op), sometimes a tourist. But mostly we get little old ladies and little old men who don’t want to pump their own gas anymore.”
If you haven’t experienced full-service at the pump, Ruzila works 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and some Saturdays.