TREMONT – Gib Mills goes out of his way to refuel his car.
He goes not just to a gas station, but to yesteryear, via a time machine better known as the Tremont Oil Co. It’s the last filling station in central Illinois that exclusively offers full service.
“It’s old school,” said Mills, 60, of Morton. “It’s always fun.”
At Tremont Oil, an attendant pumps gas, cleans the windshield and performs other throwback services. But there’s one extra that really appeals to Mills, said owner Tom Gibson.
“He gets a smile from us,” said a grinning Gibson.
Legions of faithful customers enjoy the same folksy treatment. The station has gone the extra mile for almost a century, all courtesy the Gibson family. “Things haven’t changed here in many, many, many years,” said Gibson, 58.
An old farm town, Tremont, population 2,300, sits about nine miles east of Pekin. Amid endless cornfields, the village retains a vibrant commercial district. Gibson’s grandfather, Glenn Gibson, started the business in 1924, just as the nation’s car craze was exploding.
The original station was near to what is now Interstate 155, but five years later moved closer to downtown, at Pearl and James streets, where the concrete-block structure stands as sturdy as ever. Since then, aside from three service bays added in 1968, little has changed.
A towering, spindly air hose from the ‘20s still fills tires. The interior offers no mini-mart ambience, just a few canned sodas and packaged snacks amid steel shelves of auto products. And at the pumps, full service remains the only option, including a check of oil and transmission fluid, manual cleaning of all windows, even a handscraping of ice in the winter.
The price? An extra 13 cents a gallon, which Tremont Oil’s clientele gladly pay — even with a self-serve Shell station right next door, and even amid the global rise in gas prices.
Even local youngsters – those who grew up long after self-service became the fuel-pumping norm – know how the drill works at Tremont Oil. “Their parents have sent them,” Gibson says.
Of course, full service can surprise out-of-town newcomers. They often step out of their vehicles and go to grab a pump, only to be preempted by a cheerful attendant zipping out to do the work. Initial surprise – is full service still a thing? — invariably fades amid the throwback charm as a curiously amused motorist slides back into the driver’s seat.
According to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, all gas stations are to offer pump service to customers who need assistance. But according to the Illinois Fuel & Retail Association (IFRA), a Springfield-based trade group that includes gas stations, Tremont Oil is the only station in central Illinois that is exclusively full service.
Further, the practice is a rarity across Illinois said IFRA CEO Josh Tharp. “There’s a few in the state of Illinois, probably between five and 10,” he said. “They’re few and far between.”
Tremont Oil doesn’t need the dingding of a pneumatic hose to alert employees to the arrival of a vehicle. An attendant sits at an old, reliable desk just inside a wide window overlooking the pumps. For decades, that post was manned by Don Gibson, the son of the original owner and father of the current owner. Between bouts of paperwork, he enjoyed hustling out to pump gas and chew the fat.
He died at age 81 in 2018.
“I miss him a lot,” Tom Gibson said. “He loved this place. He spent a lot of his life here.” So has Tom, who is nearing his fourth decade at the business. The station employs five others, most of whom work in the service bays. In addition to gasoline, Tremont Oil does brisk business on oil changes and tire sales
Those services provide further justification for visits by long-time customers such as Gib Mills. He began frequenting Tremont Oil as soon as he moved to town in 2004. Though he moved to Morton 10 years ago, he goes out of his way to drive to Tremont, a 15-mile round trip that gets costlier with every uptick in pump prices. But for Mills, each visit is a treat, a chance to chitchat, which he can’t get pumping his own gas elsewhere.
For many drivers, the nostalgia and social value is more than worth the extra pennies per gallon at Tremont Oil. “I just think it’s neat,” Mills says, beaming. “If everything else could go back in time like this, we’d be better off. We’d be all right.”
Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine
and content contributor to public television station WTVP