Ask Vance

Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.



Dear Vance: In the May issue of Memphis magazine, you ran a photograph of an old Pure gas station on Madison. Was this little green building (right) on South Front Street also an old gas station?

— D.N., Memphis.W

Dear D.N.: Yes. As I mentioned several months ago, in my typically long-winded way (it's called getting paid-by-the-word, folks), the Pure Oil Company came up with an "English Cottage" architectural style for all their gas stations as a way of 1) appealing to weary motorists, and 2) standing out from the competition.

Very few of the original stations remain standing, but this one at the corner of South Front and G.E. Patterson has somehow survived. My research (which means digging through old telephone directories), shows that this particular Pure Oil station was opened in 1939 — four years later than the one on Madison — by a fellow named Henry Halbert.

The first years of its ownership are a bit confusing. In 1935, brothers William and Reginald Willingham opened a Pure gas station at 836 South Third, which they named the Mid-South Service Station. Yes, I know what you're thinking — it's not a very original name, is it?

According to the phone books, Halbert took over that station in 1939 and also opened the one at 528 South Front, which he called — are you ready? — Mid-South Service Station #2. I recently spent dozens of dollars to obtain a really fine photo of this station (above) from the Pure Oil Company archives, which shows this location when it was brand new. It's a nice-looking building, that's for sure, and if you squint you can see that the operators left the cash register outside, on a little table by the arched front door. Also by the front door was one of the old "honor system" Coca-Cola dispensers. You opened the lid, swirled your hand through ice-cold water, and pulled out a chilled bottle of Coke. Then — in theory, at least — you paid the station owner.

Also notice the pole-mounted spotlight, the old-timey dome-topped gasoline pumps, and over at the right, somebody may be trying to fill up a bicycle tire. In the background is Central Station, with its landmark smokestack, looking just as it does today.

Henry Halbert didn't run this station very long. By 1943, the phone books list him as a machinist, and a few years later he's a salesman for Ostrov Auto Parts. During the early 1940s, the gas station was owned and operated by William Willingham, who had owned Mid-South Service Station #1, as you may recall if you were reading carefully. I don't know what Willingham had been doing in the intervening years, and I don't know where his brother Reginald went, but William took over both stations — on South Third and on South Front — and ran them for the next 30 years or so.

I don't really know how long the gas station on South Third survived; the site is now a Taco Bell. But I can tell you that the building on South Front went through various owners and uses — at one time in the early 1980s serving as a truck-leasing facility. In 1999, it was purchased by a nice fellow named Kris Kourdouvelis, who also owns the handsome brick building around the corner, at 36 G.E. Patterson, which at one time served as a post office facility. He lives in that larger building, and uses the old gas station for storage. Preserving it has certainly been a challenge. "I put a new roof on it a few months ago," he told me, "and then a big windstorm blew off some of the new shingles."

I hope Kourdouvelis can save it. Like the old Pure station on Madison, it adds a bit of whimsy to downtown Memphis. And we can all use more of that.

The Bear Facts

Dear Vance: Most local history buffs know that the Memphis Zoo got started with one animal — a bear. But what actually happened to that bear?

— K.D., Memphis.

Dear K.D.: Oh, it's a wonderful, heart-warming story, one you should read to your children at night. The bear, whose name was Natch (short for Natchez, I'm told), was actually acquired by a local businessman named A. B. Carruthers, who owned a wholesale shoe company, among other ventures. I should probably explain that the bear himself never said his name was Natch; some person gave him that name.

Anyway, back to my story. Carruthers, like most sensible businessmen, really had no need, or use, for a fully grown bear, so he chained it to a tree in Overton Park, where (as you might imagine), it became quite a curiosity. Civic leaders, seeing the chance to make a buck off this thing (some things never change), decided to collect an assortment of other creatures from around the region, and so Natch was indeed the first animal at the newly formed Memphis Zoo, a rather motley collection of iron cages when it opened in 1905.

For awhile, so I understand, Natch served as the unofficial mascot for a baseball team here, but historian Paul Coppock (where I've gotten most of this information) says the bear was so unruly that he was quickly returned to the zoo. Good grief, he was a bear, people — not a kitten.

But Natch didn't entertain visitors very long. On the cold night of January 15, 1908, some ruffians broke into the zoo and poisoned the poor creature.

Wait, did I say this was going to be a happy story? I meant, unhappy. Very unhappy. Sorry.

Despite the loss of its star attraction, the zoo managed to survive, and the Lauderdale Library has a very interesting little booklet (right) that describes in wondrous detail every animal on display at the Memphis Zoo in 1908 — just three years after it opened. It's a curious publication, barely four inches tall, filled with old and odd advertisements for Blue Seal Ice Cream, Waukesha Silurian Water ("the purest mineral water on earth"), Zellner Faultless Footwear, and other oddities. What's more, the booklet — published by a group called the Chickasaw Bureau of Publicity — doesn't seem to be written in English. Or at least not easy-to-understand English. For example, the zoo's new director is mentioned in this fashion: "Since the inception of the Zoo, which is fast becoming a feature of Memphis' advance toward metropolitism, never has its permanency and future development been as certain as the advent of season of 1908, which introduces to us a most efficient management in the persons of Mr. E.K. Reitmeyer and his able assistant, Mr. Wynne Cullen."

At any rate, the booklet describes precisely 42 exhibits at the zoo that year. Some of them are fairly impressive creatures. Cage 14 held an elephant that Memphis schoolchildren, in a citywide contest, named "Margarita" and the booklet takes pain to note that the naming contest "was carried on by columns of the News-Scimitar, which is and remains the zoo's champion." What's more, "she is a perfect pet and can be ridden by anyone." The elephant was purchased by Robert Galloway and J.T. Willingham, members of the Memphis Park Commission, from Ringling Bros. Circus for precisely $1,700. Something tells me elephants probably cost a bit more these days. Cage 15 held "one of the handsomest of the Bactrian camels, donated to the zoo by Al Chymia Shrine Temple, who received it as a donation from the famous scout, Pawnee Bill." I vaguely recall that one of the Lauderdales once got into a shootout with that Pawnee Bill rascal, but I'd rather not go into that here. And then Cage 16 held a lion, named Polly, "who was donated by the Hoadley Ice Cream Company of Memphis." The booklet doesn't bother to explain just why, or how, an ice cream company acquired a fully grown lion.

Back then, it seems, nearly all the creatures had names. A tiger in Cage 17 was called "Samantha" and the booklet notes, "She is a jungle-bred animal and quite docile." A few cages away, though, are a pair of Mexican tigers, "which are vicious and untameable." I sure hope nobody ever got those tigers mixed up at feeding time.

The other animals included parrots, monkeys, alligators, sea lions, lots of snakes, and something called "banana rats." The last cage contained the most thrilling display of all: wild chickens. Yes, I said chickens, and the booklet claimed they were "very rare." Maybe so, but look, they're still chickens. I'm glad the zoo has, over the years, managed to acquire a much finer collection of animals.

Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103; or email him at askvance@memphismagazine.com.

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