There was no reason to think that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen on that summer evening in 1938. Teenager Paul Anderson was doing his usual chores at the Texaco station at Snelling and Breda avenues, just south of Como Avenue. He pumped gas that sold for 20 cents a gallon, checked oil levels and cleaned windshields.
This was a busy commercial area 70 years ago. North of the station was Hecht’s Barbershop and Painter’s Ice Cream Store. Farther on, across Como, was a Standard Oil station, a roller skating rink in what had been the Como-Snelling Commercial Club, Hassett’s Restaurant and an icehouse.
The Berglund Lumberyard, Fuller’s Tavern, Satler Drug, a barbershop, Stoffels’ Sweet Shop and the stable for the Midway Creamery’s delivery horses were on the other side of Snelling. All of this disappeared as Snelling was widened and service roads were added over time.
Snelling was just a two-lane street in the 1930s, with the nearby railroad tracks crossing at grade. At one point, James Quinlan had a small farm on the east side of Snelling, near today’s Energy Park Drive. He would wave a long staff, stopping traffic on Snelling to allow his dairy cows to get to and from their pasture to the west.
Anderson, who still lives in the Como Park neighborhood, worked part-time at the Texaco station, trying to save money for college.
“Cars had six-volt batteries in those days,” he recalled, “and they often needed recharging, which meant an owner would leave the battery with us and rent a temporary replacement for 25 cents a day. One such customer came in – I’ve long since forgotten his name – and my boss, Howard Calvert, asked me to put the recharged battery back in the fellow’s car.”
Like many cars of the era, the 1932 Chevrolet’s battery was located under the floorboard, beneath the driver’s feet. To remove the floorboard, it was necessary to jockey the shift lever and emergency brake a bit. With the owner helping, Anderson accomplished the transfer, neither noticing that the shift stick had been left in reverse and the emergency brake in the off position.
The customer pressed the starter button. Nothing happened. Anderson went into the station to report the situation to Calvert, but the car’s owner took action on his own. He got out and began to hand crank the engine from the front.
“As Howard and I came out of the station, the car started with a roar, throttle wide open, and headed in reverse toward Snelling,” Anderson said. “The owner grabbed the bumper and dug his heels into the dirt, trying to hold the car back. But when he got to the sidewalk, there was nothing to dig into anymore. He lost his grip and wound up lying in the street, somewhat disoriented, I think. A couple of men had to restrain him, because he got up as if to stand in front of the car and stop it.”
Dusk was approaching as the car, its front wheels turned to the right, began circling on Snelling. Anderson ran with a flashlight to stop cars coming south past the State Fairgrounds, while someone else did the same for cars heading north.
“People parked their cars and got out to watch the spectacle, and others came from nearby houses and lined the sidewalk,” Anderson said. “I was hoping the car wouldn’t somehow get straightened out, because somebody would get hurt.”
With each revolution the car came closer to the curb, and eventually the left front wheel started to hit it. That would slow the car briefly, but it quickly picked up speed again. A headlight came loose and hung down from its mount. Finally, the tire blew, making it possible for one of farmer Quinlan’s sons to jump on the running board and turn off the ignition.
“We put the spare tire on the car, reattached the headlight and the fellow left, somewhat shaken,” Anderson said. “The whole episode probably only took four or five minutes, but it was exciting while it lasted.”