Progress in the city of Danville, and America’ s love affair with the automobile, ended the tenure of one of the city’s landmarks in 1932.
The city scales on the large corner lot at the intersection of South Vermilion and South Street were replaced by a service station that year. The scales had weighed horse-drawn carts and wagons and the motorized vehicles that replaced them, but in the 20th century, their time had passed.
It seemed an unusual time to be opening a new business. The nation was in the depths of the Great Depression. But H. B. O’Hair of Mattoon, Illinois, saw an opportunity and he took advantage of it.
He put three large gasoline storage tanks in the pit where the scales were taken out, remodeled the scale house and opened a Keystone Oil Company service station. The Vermilion County jail, across the street to the west, had a new neighbor.
The city scales had been in operation for decades. The intersection where they were located was reportedly one of the busiest in the business district at one time. Grain, coal, scrap metal and other bulk materials were brought there to be weighed when the materials were being sold in the city.
As more companies put in their own scales, fewer and fewer people needed the public scale. In 1932, the city council realized the operation was not bringing in enough revenue to pay a weighmaster and maintain the property.
Katherine Stapp was a 29-year-old school teacher that year. She recalled the times were exceptionally trying, numerous teachers were being paid in script because the school districts had no cash.
She also noted people were living in tents in Danville because they had lost their homes. In Chicago it was noted 759 homes were lost by 1,400 teachers as the Great Depression crushed the nation’s economy.
Times were bleak, but the automobile still ruled. Gordon Bridgman, who operated a station through those lean years, recalled people wanted to keep gas in their auto, if they still had one. He remembered he had been offered all kinds of items in exchange for a few gallons of gas.
Despite the financial depression, the number of service stations grew during the 1930s.
The Danville City Directory listed more than 70 in 1932. That number would eclipse 100 in 1939. It seemed proper to plant at least one service station, and often more than one, at every busy intersection in the city. Quenching the thirst of the machines that had put the horse out to pasture was big business.
Thomas McReynolds was weighmaster for several years when the city scales were in operation. He lived on McReynolds Avenue in the city, The last person to hold the post was Lewis Johnson. He was weighmaster when the city council decided to relegate the old scales to history in the summer of 1932.
H.H. O’Hair was credited with updating the old scale building on the site to one that would “meet the demands of the automobile age.” O’Hair also agreed to allow free parking for shoppers and visitors to the city on the spacious lot that had once housed the scales.
Now, South Vermilion Street and all that once stood along it has become a part of the past. But there was a day when loaded horse-drawn wagons rolled down the busy avenue, the weight of their contents still unknown. But that mystery was soon to be solved by the man behind the scales.
The official city weighmaster.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.