August 22, 2001 11:00 pm
THE MEN WHO WEAR THE STAR: From left, George, Wes and Mark Kalmback have kept things in the family for almost a half-century. (The Observer/KELLY WARD).
THE MEN WHO WEAR THE STAR: From left, George, Wes and Mark Kalmback have kept things in the family for almost a half-century. (The Observer/KELLY WARD).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Businesses and business owners come and go. But the Kalmbach family has survived in the service station business in La Grande for almost half a century.

My dad started in the business across the street 25 years before we came over here in 1978, said Wes Kalmbach from behind the cash register at Georges Texaco Station at the corner of Adams Avenue and Second Street.

George Kalmbach, 77, who still works at the station three or four hours a day, operated a Shell station diagonally across the corner beginning about 1953.

Dad decided we should buy some property instead of renting, so we became partners in 1978 and bought this station, Wes Kalmbach said. I worked for him over there before that.

The station they bought was called Heasty and Georges Filling Co., although nobody now seems to remember who that George was.

The building that was at the present Kalmbach location has since been torn down, but photos of it hang in the present station, with cars of the day pictured by the gas pump.

Now there are three generations of Kalmbachs involved in the operation. Wes son, Mark, 21, has worked full-time for four years, after having worked part-time during junior high and high school.

Marks good at the lube rack but not too much interested in mechanics, said Wes. I do most of the mechanical work now, he said before crawling under a Toyota pickup to look for the source of an oil leak for a customer who had just driven in.

A college student comes in now on Saturdays and evenings to help with the mechanic work. Other help is hired as needed to fill in.

There was a lot more mechanical work in the early years. We dont do too much work on cars now because cars just last longer and because the computerized equipment is so expensive to buy, Wes said.

When Dad started, he did mechanic work and had another full-time mechanic, too. The station maintained some freight trucks back then, but that business no longer exists. The station used to service Coca-Cola trucks, but that company now has its own mechanics, Wes said.

It still services UPS delivery trucks.

The station does oil changes, brake work and tire repair, although it no longer sells tires. But major mechanical problems are referred to other shops.

I look at myself as more of a general doctor, Wes said. I send them to a specialist. We are limited as to what we can do here.

I found an old clipboard the other day on maintaining an old Chevrolet. It said, Change oil every 1,000 miles. Nowadays cars go on forever, it seems, before they need an oil change.

Wes worked for his dad for $1 an hour, but the minimum wage is $6.50 nowadays. A good mechanic requires much more than that.

With two service bays and four gas pumps, the station may not be as busy as some nearer the interstate, but there are many loyal customers, as witnessed by Wes greeting them by first name as they drive in for gasoline.

I know we have some customers whove been coming in for at least 15 years. We see a lot of the same people day in and day out, and we also see some people come back in who dont even live here, Wes said.

Wes remembers when gasoline was 30 cents a gallon, when he was in high school.

We wont ever see that again. Why, the (state and federal) taxes alone are more than 42 cents a gallon now, he said.

Gasoline hasnt gone up that much when you take away the taxes, which were 10 or 12 cents a gallon in the 1960s.

As for a dealers profit margin, he doesnt see much change, considering inflation and other factors. The difference in the wholesale and retail price in 1956, he remembers, was 6 cents a gallon.

I make 12 cents a gallon now, if you dont count the credit card fees, which are 5 cents a gallon.

The station is open six days a week, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., except it closes at 6 on Saturdays.

Im here Monday through Saturday. I enjoy it.

Whether his son, Mark, keeps the station going hasnt been determined, Wes said.

Mark said, I dont know if Ill stay with this. Ill probably go to college one of these days and the experience I get here will help me get a job while attending college.

I guess Ill stay with it for a while.

As for George, who has had a stroke and a heart bypass and suffers from Parkinsons disease, he said hed keep coming in to work at the station as long as I feel like it.

He wasnt feeling like it Wednesday morning. Instead, he was heading to Mount Adams for an annual campout and huckleberry picking trip with his wife and another couple.