Service Stations of the Key Peninsula

They kept the engines of progress and the wheels of commerce lubricated, fueled and moving on the peninsula. Literally.

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It was the age of the automobile — a machine, as it was called, that demanded frequent feeding and care. One by one auto repair shops and gas stations sprouted along county roads, family businesses that often included stores to sell groceries and the rest of life’s essentials.

Change was in the air. In 1919 ferry service began between Tacoma and Gig Harbor, bringing motorists closer to the peninsula’s secluded bays, picturesque farms and jaw-dropping views. That year Edith Delano credited the ferry for her hotel’s best season in a long while.

In 1921, Pierce County replaced the creaky, temperamental swing bridge at Purdy with a motorist-friendly fixed wooden span. The following year construction began on the hard-surfaced Gig Harbor-Longbranch Highway, a project that would transform the peninsula when it was completed a few years later.

By 1924 drivers could buy gasoline at several locations on the peninsula. An ad for Standard Oil’s Red Crown Gasoline in the Tacoma Daily Ledger in June 1924 named over 100 “dealers” in the Tacoma area, including seven on the peninsula: Harry Curl, Longbranch Mercantile, and Samuel S. Watkinson in Longbranch; A.C. Sorenson and Home Warehouse Co. in Home; Henry S. Reed & Son in Lakebay; and Lyman E. Freeborn in Vaughn.

And starting about that time they could also get their cars or trucks cared for at local garages run by young entrepreneurs who had taken to the new technology like fish to water.

The 1920s

Curl’s Hiway Garage was the first, opening its doors around 1923 in Longbranch on the new highway across from the baseball field, now the Longbranch Improvement Club parking area. In May 1924 the Peninsula Gateway wrote that “Harry Curl, Jr., has a new garage on his father’s ranch ... and he is doing a very good business.”

Harry Curl sold the business to Jo and Al Dorfner in 1946. The garage closed in the 1970s. The building still stands and is now a self-storage locker facility. Then in 1925, an ad in the Tacoma News Tribune introduced the Vaughn Bay Garage, “Service Station and General Repairs, John Wolniewicz, Prop(rietor)”. Wolniewicz had arrived in Vaughn with his family in 1923 from Chinook, Montana. In Vaughn, he met Gordon Kingsbury, who built a garage and rented it to him on Kingsbury’s property on Bayview Road. 

Around 1945 Wolniewicz moved the garage to a much better location at the familiar four-way junction where Olson Drive and Hall, South Vaughn and Wright-Bliss Roads NW meet in Vaughn. Postmaster Lyman Freeborn followed suit, moving his store and the post office from the building near the old Vaughn Library hall to that location as well. Freeborn may have even helped spruce the place up; in April 1946 the Peninsula Gateway reported that Vaughn Bay Garage received a new coat of paint. “Spring must really be here!” the article proclaimed.

The garage closed sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s. The store and post office operated until the building burned down in 1967.

The 1930s

Three service stations opened in the 1930s: Teddie’s Garage in Lakebay, the service station in Key Center, and Collins Service & Grocery in Minter.

Ted Kinzner opened Teddie’s Garage and store sometime in the 1930s. The new highway to Longbranch had gone right through the middle of Kinzner’s parents’ property, about two miles south of Home, so a roadside service station and store made good business sense.

The garage, known simply as Kinzner’s, operated until 1969 when the Kinzners sold the property. The building still stands; a lone 1950s Gasboy pump, now gone, stands guard in a 1987 photo.

Collins’ Service & Grocery at the intersection of the Minter-Kitsap Road (today 118th Avenue NW) and the KP highway opened in 1932; the Collins property had also been bisected by the highway. Brothers Ralph and Tom Collins took over from their father James sometime in the late 1930s.

Collins’ closed when Ralph died in 1988; Tom had died in 1970. By the time it closed, the business had been operating continuously for a record 56 years; many locals still remember the ice cream they bought at the grocery as kids. The building is now occupied by Ravensara Espresso, 3 Clouds Bakery, and Serenity Salon and Consignment.

As early as 1932 there was a service station in Key Center as well. In announcing the new business district in March 1932, the Tacoma Daily Ledger mentioned a service station operated by I. James, who also managed the drug store and the coffee shop. Opposite the service station was a car park run by Elmer Olson. Olson’s land was on the north side of today’s 92nd Street NW, so the service station was on the south side.

In 1940 Edward Gabrielson, who owned a service station in Purdy, built a service station in Key Center with a “fully-equipped repair shop,” according to the Peninsula Gateway. That may very well have been what later became the Key Center Shell station and Peninsula Service at the northwest corner of the intersection. The service station changed hands several times over the decades. Its last owner was Medric Schwenka; it closed shortly after Schwenka was elected fire chief in 1977. By 1982 the building was occupied by an auto parts store; it has been a smoke shop since 2005.

The 1940s

Len’s Service, a garage and store owned and operated by Lennart B. Lonning in Wauna at the corner of the highway and present-day 94th Avenue NW, was built in 1943. Lonning sold the station in 1969 to Ken Bunce of Port Orchard; the business closed around 1980.

Today the service station is a mini-mart.

The last station to open on the peninsula before 1950 was Tillman’s Chevron in Home, and it is the one with the longest history.

In 1944 Wallace (Wally) Tillman and his wife Virginia returned to Home after several years near Union in Mason County where Wallace worked as a truck driver for a logging company. Wallace was born in Home Colony in 1910; he and Virginia had strong ties to the community. As he told a friend when he was still working in Mason County, the distance “could not prevent them from spending most of their weekends with relatives and friends” in Home.

By 1944 Tillman and his wife had returned to Home, and in 1947 built a service station on the corner of the highway and B Street near the bridge. The station opened later that spring, perhaps with the help of Tillman’s brother Alton (Al), an accomplished mechanic.

A catastrophic fire in April 1973 caused by a truck falling off the lift in the service bay reduced the building to ashes; all that was left was one corner of wood, the Bremerton Sun reported. Terry Rabbage, who had been operating the station since 1969, barely survived. Chevron replaced the station, and soon after the fire Tillman retired and sold the business to Rabbage.

The station changed hands three more times since the fire. And although it no longer includes a garage, the corner of B Street and the highway is still home to a gas station today, over 75 years since Wally Tillman opened his service station in 1947.


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