by Phyllis Lindberg
I am writing this article to share the rich history of a place in North Branch that may not be fully appreciated in 2013. The first recorded commercial activity on the southeast corner of Highway 95 and Old Hwy 61 goes back to a prosperous mercantile store that burned in 1884, was rebuilt in 1885 only to burn and be rebuilt again in 1892. This third wood framed building, built by R.L. Hall, was known as “The Hall Block” and was operated as another mercantile store until sold in 1905 when a group of local businessmen incorporated it into the “North Branch Mercantile.” On the first floor as a grocery, dry goods and general merchandise store. The southwest corner of the building housed the North Branch Post Office until 1927 while upstairs rooms served as offices, the local Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star. John P. Holmberg, who lived with his wife Lavinnie in a large Victorian house just south of the store, was manager of the mercantile until the building burned in the early morning hours of Dec. 29, 1930.
This was the end of the era of the corner’s dependence on the railroad, which was located to the west across the intersection of then Railroad Avenue and Highway 95.
As a 10-year-old girl, I witnessed the fire from an upstairs window in the Hammerstrom family home at 6th and Cedar. This event has remained an indelible memory. In addition, I remember my father’s frozen fireman’s outer clothing standing erect on the kitchen floor after the fire.
In 1933, a Standard Station was built at the corner to replace the mercantile store and was operated by B.C. Johnson. In the fall of 1936 my brother, Leonard Hammerstrom (NBHS Class of 1934) after managing it briefly, leased the station from Mrs. Holmberg and later purchased the property in 1939, operating it as “Lenny’s Standard Service.” After Leonard was drafted into the army in May of 1942, the station was family operated by a brother-in-law and others, including a period when my mother carried on all the normal services of the time wearing her classy white-collared navy blue coveralls.
After his discharge in 1946, Leonard enrolled at the U of M and became a mechanical engineer.
From the beginning days in the 1930s through the late 50s, a unique feature of this station was a lunch counter in the west center of the building. One could enjoy a hot lunch at the counter or in three booths. Hilda Bourquin (from the beginning to the late 1940s) Dehlia Dresel, Essie Anderson and Francis Hanson, among others, served up tasty meals and were well-respected ladies of the village. Lester Johnson, a vital employee in the ‘30s, returned from the service in 1945 to work at the station for several years after his discharge.
In May of 1946, my husband Carl Lindberg and I purchased the station and operated it as “Lindy’s Standard Service” until May of 1960, at which time we sold it to the Standard Oil Company when we purchased a farm and started farming. What an experience it was being involved in those post-war-era “glory years” of the American gas station, especially when there were five stations all located near the intersection of Highways 95 and 61. During this period, Carl gained great satisfaction from training and employing several high school boys and young men. He also appreciated employing Rudy Peterson after Rudy retired from his own station on the east end of Main Street.
In the mid 1960s, Standard Oil Co. covered the original white brick exterior with metal panels that were the style of the time. Subsequent operators under the Standard Oil Co. between 1960 and 1965 were John Olson, Jerry Doble and Lonnie Nelson. In 1965, Gary Schaefer leased and later purchased the property from The American Oil Company in 1971, subsequently serving the community by employing and influencing many young high school boys and young men who have been or are local businessmen today.
There is a quip still passing among this group that they “graduated from Gary’s School of Business.”
In 1981, Mike and Randy Preisler purchased the property and have operated the now familiar auto repair shop for 31 years. The gas pumps were used to dispense gas during the first 10 years, but by 1992 the Standard gas sign was removed and the repair shop took over as the priority business. A generation or more of North Branch citizens have grown up trusting the Preisler brothers with their vehicles—a well-deserved trust.
As the Preislers transition out of their business, it is up to the new owner to plan the continuation of this story. It is my hope that this property might find a reuse of the classic gas station that lurks under the exterior metal panels. Restoration of the historic façade could be a major attraction that acknowledges the history of this corner of this still vital intersection in our community. However it is done, may the future of this corner be even more productive than its past history.