We are spending the next several weeks looking at the history of Trousdale County’s gas stations — a history over 100 years old!
As we saw in last week’s article, the first automobile in Hartsville is thought to have been A.C. Welch’s White Steamer. That car was unique in that it used coal for a fuel, heating water to make steam and run a small steam engine that then turned the wheels.
Mr. Welch’s steam-powered automobile actually had great power and could make terrific speed for that day and time. However, every time you needed to drive a steam-powered car, you had to build a fire and then wait until it got hot enough to boil the water into steam.
Steam powered cars were quickly put out of business by gasoline-powered cars using the internal combustion engine.
We need to back up a little.
The internal combustion engine had been around for a while, having been invented by 1794 and commercially available by 1874. This was well before the modern automobile.
Those early internal combustion engines (engines where the burning of the fuel was out of sight, internally inside the engine) were not only safer to operate but more efficient). At that time, they were used to power sawmills, grist mills, run farm equipment and to pump water.
But whether the gas-powered engine runs an automobile or a tractor or a sawmill, none of them would have been feasible if it hadn’t been for the discovery of petroleum.
Petroleum, from the Latin for “rock oil,” was discovered by ancient man because there are places where it would flow naturally onto land or into streams and lakes.
It didn’t take our ancestors long to realize that it was highly flammable.
For centuries petroleum, or “crude oil,” was used as a fuel for fires to warm people or to create light. It could even be distilled into lotion and used as a medicine, as in the still popular petroleum jelly.
Those early uses of crude oil were, like the name implies, crude.
It took a great deal of experimentation and refining to create a fuel that was manageable, and it wasn’t gasoline.
The first real commercial use of crude oil was when it was refined and distilled into kerosene.
In 1853 the first kerosene lamp was invented and the housewives of the world were happy. No longer would they have to cook supper by the feeble light of a candle.
In the process of making kerosene, gasoline was a byproduct and was considered too flammable and dangerous. It was usually discarded or destroyed.
But with time, gasoline and the internal combustion engine made for a great combination and that in turn led to its use in the original “horseless carriage” by the 1890s.
It took even longer for the first gas stations!
Because gasoline was already being used to power small engines for farm work, you could buy it at any rural general store or at the local blacksmith’s shop. Even pharmacies carried it, since in the old days pharmacies carried all kinds of chemicals and oils.
The first gas station in America was in 1905, in St. Louis. The first drive-in gas station wasn’t until 1913.
In those days, they already were being called “filling stations.” So, when did Hartsville get its first filling station?
While we can’t be certain, we think that the first real gas station in town was the old Owen Brothers Gas and Tire Company on Main Street.
The Owen brothers were part of the Owen family that had built the Owen Tobacco Company, once the largest factory in the county until it moved operations to Gallatin, where it still manufactures tobacco products.
The gas station stood exactly where our county’s Justice Center is today.
The location is interesting because in the days of horse and buggies, that had been the same spot used by Vance’s Livery Stable, a place to rent a buggy or to park your horse for the day.
The Owen brothers were there by 1926, because we have photos of the gas station during the big flood of that year.
Our photo in this week’s article doesn’t have a date but we do know that it was taken after a big snow, because snow is piled up on the curb.