- Cullman, Alabama

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June 16, 2013

Better than the old mule by a country mile

CULLMAN — Being glad to come home didn’t necessarily mean he was ready to get behind that mule again, though.

While he was away, his dad bought a 20-acre farm of his own. Bert arrived home just in time for fall cotton pickin’ season. He worked in the field one day before heading into town to look for a job — and a car.

And there it was, his dream car just waiting for him. A 1938 Chevy convertible, gleaming black with a white top. He used the money that he’d saved while in the service to buy it.

Pulling into the Standard station on Main Avenue, he drew the attention of the owner, Donald Giles, who offered the young GI a job. “I started the very next morning,” McGriff chuckled. “I made $35 a week pumping gas, washing windshields and mounting tires. We even swept out your car back then.”

He was once again a man in uniform, although this time there was a grease rag hanging from his back pocket. “It was a lot better than a mule,” he grinned.

He was industrious; he kept busy all the time, was efficient and friendly. For a year he worked hard and although he didn’t know it, he had an audience. A group of investors from the Shell Oil Company had come to Cullman with the intention of giving Standard Oil some competition. They observed Bert from across the street.

One afternoon he pulled up in the driveway of the farmhouse in his Chevy and another car pulled in behind him. He strolled over to see what the men wanted. They wanted him.

Bert Morgan, of Morgan Oil, and some other men offered McGriff the deal of a lifetime. They wanted him as the owner/operator of his own station. “They told me that they’d been observing me for the past three days and that they had picked me out of a group of others to approach about buying into their chain. ‘I’ve just gotten out of the service,’” he explained to them. “All the money I had saved went into this car,” he had said, indicating the Chevy.

They wanted an upfront investment of a thousand dollars. He just shook his head.

That night he told his dad about the offer. Lonnie McGriff didn’t say much, but the next day he borrowed the money from a friend and gave it to his surprised son. A thousand dollars was a huge sum of money in those days.

“I opened my station with my last $35 check in the cash register and was a thousand dollars in debt,” he said.

It wasn’t long before all of his buddies started hanging around, sitting on the drink box, watching the traffic and checking out the girls. He often parked his car out front to draw attention. It was the only one like it in town.

The owner of the other station was pumping a thousand gallons of gasoline a month at twenty cents per gallon. The first month, Bert pumped about 20,000 gallons. “That was big money back then, and we sold most of it about a dollar at a time,” he laughed.

His was a full-service station. His staff included two employees and himself. Sometimes, if the crops were laid by, his dad came into town and worked for a while. Bert never had to repay the thousand dollars that his dad borrowed. “The man who loaned him the money traded out with me for washing and greasing his cars,” he said.

Only 22 years old, still living at home, and the owner of his own business, Bert prided himself on giving the best wash job in town. There were about a half-dozen other stations up and down the strip, but his philosophy was to out-service them all.

“At the time, Highway 31 was the only paved road in town,” he recalls. “Highway 278, although busy, was still an unpaved country road.”

He’d been in business about a year when disaster struck in the form of a little bug. It was called the boll weevil and it wreaked havoc among cotton farms all over the South. Cullman was a farming community and it was hit hard by the pesky critter. There was a hosiery mill, the Buettner Brothers Sawmill and Arnold Lumber Yard, but the hosiery mill was staffed by mostly women, and the lumber yard only provided a few jobs.

Soldiers were still returning from the war, only to go back to farms that were being decimated by the boll weevil. It wasn’t long before most of them headed north to work for Henry Ford.

Bert’s business was slow. He owed his living to his regular customers who kept him afloat during this time. Often he would hitch a ride into town, going from store to store until he found someone who wanted a car wash. For $1 he would drive their car back to the station, clean it inside and out, and for an extra seventy-five cents he would grease it. Oil was a quarter a quart. Then he returned the car and hitched a ride back unless he could find another customer.

It took a while, but farmers slowly became educated in eradicating the boll weevil and they started to bounce back. Many of them, however, sold out and moved to town. Houses sprung up along the streets of Cullman. On Highway 31 there were sidewalks, although they were rolled up at dusk every week day.

On weekends it was a different story. Farmers came into town with their wives and kids. While their cotton was being ginned at Stiefelmeyer’s, they visited the two movie theaters, joked with each other, ate ice cream or bought groceries at Brindlee’s, where Luyben and Boike is located today.

McGriff’s business picked up. In addition to gas and oil, he sold a lot of five-cent Cokes in little green bottles and snacks delivered by Chester Freeman, who ran the Toms route. Back then there were no refrigerated drink boxes, so McGriff purchased 25 pounds of ice every day to keep the drinks cold and the customers happy.

Guys sat atop the drink box and drank RC Colas or Orange Nesbitts filled with salted peanuts.

Sometimes, when business was slow, he bought an old car and fixed it up to sell. It kept his employees busy and improved his cash flow. It might have been hard work, but it still had that mule beat by a country mile.

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