Upchurch Service Station, possibly county’s longest family run business, closes its doors

Posted April 28, 2022 at 8:55 am

Upchurch Service.psd

By David M. Cross

After over 82 years, one of Clinton County’s oldest businesses has put the crepe on its doors. In fact, we believe that Upchurch Service Station might well be the county’s oldest business which has been continuously owned and operated by one family.

Herbert (Doc) Upchurch and his brother Stanley bought the “Rock Castle” from Ovid Barber in December 1939. According to their ad in the 1935 Clinton County Bicentennial Program, the Rock Castle Service Station (it had Crab Orchard stone on the front side) sold “Golden Tip Gasoline and Viscoyl Motor Oil” for the Stoll Refining Company. Jess Wright was operating the station in 1935; he sold out to Barber, who soon sold to the Upchurch Brothers.

The Upchurch brothers had come to Albany from the Willow Grove, Tennessee area, not far from Trooper Island, from an area which is now under the waters of Dale Hollow Lake. In fact, that’s what brought the Upchurch family to Albany, as the family was going to lose their home to the waters of Dale Hollow. Stanley didn’t stay in the business long, selling out to Doc in 1944. According to Gayle, Doc got his nickname because he could doctor cars.

Doc and his help pumped gas, diesel, and coal oil; sold snacks, and did service and detail work on vehicles. There was no self-service in those days. Back in those days the cars must have needed a lot more work than they do today because there were a lot more garages and a lot fewer cars.

Little garages and service stations used to dot the landscape around the county. In town, besides Doc’s, there was Clyde Wilborn, Edgar Witham, Jeff Craig, Clayton Brown, Harvey Qualls, and Luther Harlan, among others. Some of the notable local mechanics of bygone days included the Sewell Brothers (Fred and Willie “Wig”), the Aaron Brothers (Jesse and Jack), the Hunley Brothers, (Guy and Paul, who were also the local Studebaker dealers), and the Thomas Brothers (Maurice and Maxey) . There were many others, and we couldn’t begin to name them all.

Many of these fellows got training while working for the local car dealerships. In the day, Albany had multiple new car dealerships such as Cross Chevrolet; Owens Motor Company (Pete Owens); (Robert) Higginbotham & (Bob) Dyer; Reeves Motor Company; Albany Motors (Gordon and Wendell Wade); and Frank Brown Motors. Some of the workmen stayed with their employer for many years; some, like Jack and Jess Aaron, eventually set up their own shop.

Things sure are different now. You’ve got to drive out of town to buy a new car. And it just about takes a technical degree to work on one.

Doc built a new building in 1953, with two modern service bays and upgraded gas pumps. The old building had said “Herbert Upchurch Service Station”; in 1953 the title of “Doc Upchurch and Son” was etched on the side of the new building. Over the years many people worked for Doc and his son, Gayle, including Don Sloan, Bob Mitchell, Jess Riddle, Albert Wright, Gary and Gene Huddleston, Floyd Rains, Mark Coop, Granville Lewis, Freddie and Robert Lee Sells, one of the Andrews boys from New Hope, James Dicken, Steve Booher and most recently Rick Collins.

Business thrived, and Doc Upchurch’s became one of Standard Oil’s best accounts in the region. Doc was loyal to Standard Oil–for years, he would not put any other oil but Chevron in a car that he was servicing. The tires he sold were Atlas (furnished and guaranteed by Standard Oil).

When the plans first came out for new streets and sidewalks to be built in Albany in the late 1950s, it was first proposed that the new project would go much farther down what was then KY 35 (now US 127). But that would have wiped out Doc Upchurch. However, the Standard Oil “jobber” (wholesaler) was Charlie Stokes of Monticello, who was influential in Democrat Party circles, and Standard Oil was based in Louisville, and they had a bit of influence, too. For some reason, the street plans were shortened in South Albany, terminating just north of Doc’s station– and Doc’s new building has remained unbothered to this day.

Doc had married Ruby Nell Booher, who was the second-grade teacher for countless students. They had one son, Gayle. “Miss Ruby Nell” was a kind, wonderful teacher. Quite diminutive, she wasn’t much bigger than her second graders.

Gayle began working there, helping to clean up cars while a mere child, and took over ownership and management of the station when Doc retired. Gayle has remained at the location until last week when, due to declining health, Upchurch Service Station closed its doors permanently. Gayle is now 78 years old, and the station has been the only public job he ever had.

Upchurchs always gave good service, and it was an excellent detail shop–considered the best in town for many years. It was clean down there–the best mechanics kept their businesses clean, and if you were doing detail work it was especially important. The Upchurchs served folks from all parts of the county, but it seemed as if no one from Lee’s Chapel Ridge bought gas anywhere else until they quit selling gas over twenty years ago. At that time some of the older folks on the ridge thought they might have to quit driving because there wasn’t anywhere else to buy gas.

Gayle’s wife Hazel started her carpet business in a corner of the building several years ago and now is the premier carpet seller in the county, having constructed a building across the road a few years ago. Hazel herself probably pumped more gas than anyone else who worked at Doc’s–and we are certain she made more conversation.

Now, another little piece of Clinton County has become history and the businesses owned and operated by local people, who spend their money locally, continue to disappear, one by one, replaced by chains whose owners don’t spend their money here. Let’s hope the American Dream of owning your own business, giving good service to your customers, and having standards of excellence doesn’t disappear completely.