A tank full of memories in Wytheville

Bristol Herald Courier – August 18, 2011

WYTHEVILLE, Va. –By: Joe Tennis

As a young girl, at the brink of the Great Depression, Seawillow Umberger Jackson visited her daddy at his service station along U.S. Highway 21.

“It was a place for her to come over and get candy,” said her longtime husband and childhood friend, Cecil Jackson.

Highway 21 was a main road then, in the 1930s, leading from Florida to the Great Lakes. So, naturally, Seawillow’s father, H.R. Umberger, named his business the “Lakes to Florida Service Station.”

It enjoyed good business through the 1950s. But the road was rerouted through Wytheville, the courthouse town of Wythe County. And then came I-77, replacing the north-south corridor that paralleled U.S. 21 and part of U.S. 52.

Now, said Marcella Taylor, the marketing coordinator for Wytheville’s museums, “It would be really interesting for people to see how this road was a main road between Ohio and Florida at one time. This was a main stopping point. And this was a little gas station where people would stop and get their gas. Then, later, they had little grocery items.”

 

‘What it was like’ 

Decades later, the building remained. And so did the memories. And so did the promise that Seawillow made to her parents in wanting to keep much of the old landscape of Wytheville intact, just like it was, back in the glory days.

That’s why Jackson, 85, and her husband, Cecil, both formerly of San Antonio, Texas, have donated about 15 acres of land in the town limits to preserve the past.

Their donation has helped provide a space for the town’s heritage museum and visitors center. And now comes this: the Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum, taking its name in part from the old store’s moniker, Lakes to Florida Service Station.

 

The station was once a Texaco, then Esso. The Umbergers sold candy, cheese crackers and snacks.

“He did a tremendous amount of business,” said Cecil Jackson, 88, an Emory, Va., native and former resident of Glade Spring.

Now, much of the vintage tools, oil cans and other collectibles remain as part of the museum, all donated by the Jacksons, with more materials added with the help of Wytheville’s museum director, Frances Emerson, all highlighting the history of the Great Lakes to Florida Highway.

“The idea is to get people to know what it was like many years ago,” Cecil Jackson said. “Look at all the old tools and things.”

Seawillow Jackson added: “I think they’ve done a wonderful job restoring it. We just wanted the property saved and not become an asphalt jungle. And we just wanted everything preserved, because I knew that would please my mother and father.”

 

‘Strictly for show’ 

With help from transportation enhancement grants, the new museum also includes a couple of antique gas pumps, restored in bright red by Wytheville’s John Thomas.

Both pumps had once been used in Wythe County, Va., Thomas said.

Just don’t get the wise idea that you could come here and fill up your tank with these models dating to 1924 and 1938.

But, oh, savor that price tags: One pump says less than 18 cents for a gallon of gas; another advertises the price at 25 cents!

“They’re strictly for show,” said Thomas, an antiques collector and restorer.

And they set off the museum, giving it a nostalgic and authentic look, Thomas figured.

“It’s a piece of American history,” Thomas said. “And it gives me a sense of pride to be able to be involved with it and actually restore a piece of our history.”

jtennis@bristolnews.com | (276) 791-0704