Petroleum Collectibles Monthly

October 2008 - As Good as the Best for Less - Smile Gas

North Carolina’s Western Piedmont or “Foothills” region is home to many fond memories of my childhood. The look and feel of North Carolina differs greatly from place to place, depending on where you are, and the Western Piedmont is no exception. It is home to small towns and textile mill villages and furniture factories that have meant prosperity to generations of people. My mother was born in the region, in Morganton, and I spent many summer days of my childhood in that town. Sadly, Morganton and all across the region have changed drastically in the past decade or so, and the mills and factories are closing. The old-time concrete two-lane roads of just a few years ago are now paralleled by superhighways that span the entire nation. You rarely find a roadside drive-in anymore serving “chipped ham” sandwiches or burgers with chili, onions and mustard, just fast food outlets like everywhere else. Super Wal-Mart stores have nothing that compare with the glass-front candy counters that were found in every Roses 5 & 10 cent stores all across the region; and where once they were common, you have to search the radio dial to find live gospel quartets on Sunday morning radio programs. Sadly, along with all these other changes in the region, there are no more Smile gas stations, just memories of the winking attendant on the rooftop neon signs.
The first Smile station opened in 1938 right in the heart of the Western Piedmont, on what is now First Street Southwest in Hickory. Hickory was a booming furniture factory town and the Smile station was the city’s first real “discount” service station. Smile was founded by an experienced oil man, one of a family of entrepreneurs who were taking advantage of the opportunities offered in gasoline marketing, and one who had seen what trackside discounters had accomplished with a cash based business throughout the Depression. He was determined to bring the concept home to relatively prosperous Hickory, with its furniture factories and their payrolls.
That oil man was J. Earl Barringer, born in 1904 in Catawba County into a family with a long history in the area. Ancestors settled in the area in the colonial era, and participated in local Revolutionary War efforts and against Indians in the westward expansion of the state. Earl was one of three brothers in a family where they all entered the oil business in the 1920s and 30s, and consolidated into a base of operations that began with the founding of Superior Petroleum in Newton, NC in 1933. Superior was one of the first Cities Service jobbers in North Carolina, and was founded with Earl Barringer as president, brother-in-law, L. J. Jarrett as vice president, and brother, Carroll Barringer as secretary. Earl had previously worked for the local agents representing Standard (Esso), Gulf and Texaco, and it appears that Mr. Jarrett had been involved with a distributor in Salisbury in the early 1930s. After five years as a branded jobber, Superior Petroleum was represented Cities Service with stations in six counties, and the company was using two transports and four tank-wagon trucks to serve dozens of dealer sites and country stores in the area. Access to good sources of supply gave the brothers a concept of developing their own brand, and in 1938 the two Barringer brothers and Jarrett were joined by another brother, Emmitt, in the founding of Smile Oil Company. Since the key to success was multiplying the effort, they sought to open other stations as quickly as practical, and soon stations could be found in Morganton, Asheville, Lincolnton, and Taylorsville and at other locations in Hickory. Early employees with Smile included both Otto Moritz and his wife, and it is Mrs. Moritz who is credited with designing the “smiling boy” attendant logo that the company would use for many years. The design was incorporated into a standardized station layout, as well, and the mildly streamlined buildings became the company’s best advertising element. The rooftop “smiling boy” attendant sign with neon outlining gave the appearance of winking when illuminated at night, and watching the sign wink was a great attraction to children.
World War II interrupted business at Smile, as it did with every oil company, but by operating their own transports and buying directly from Wilmington based terminals, the company survived the product and manpower shortages of the era, as well as gas rationing, relatively intact. After the war, the Barringer brothers began dividing up the management of their businesses. The Smile operation was re-organized and incorporated as Blue Ridge Oil in 1947, with Earl Barringer, its creator, in charge. Emmitt Barringer took over the operations in Lenoir and incorporated as Barringer Oil, also a Cities Service jobber, and Carroll Barringer and L. J. Jarrett continued management of Superior Petroleum. All remained actively involved in the local White truck and Hudson automobile dealership that they jointly owned, as well. In addition to the group of Smile stations then in operation, Blue Ridge began a branded jobber division, representing Atlantic products in Mitchell, Avery, and Watauga counties. The Smile brand began expanding, and during the 1950s, new stations were built throughout Western North Carolina, with particular emphasis on the region’s only major city, Asheville. Within a few years, four stations were operating in the city.
In 1955, Earl Barringer sold his interests in the other oil companies to operate Blue Ridge, and incorporated Smile Stations, Inc. as a separate entity, with both companies owning stations that displayed the Smile brand. Up until about this time, Smile had been essentially the only “gas for less” choice in much of their market, but during the mid-1950s other regional companies such as Service Distributing began setting up shop in the Western Piedmont towns and in Asheville. Always at a certain disadvantage to the name recognition enjoyed by major oil companies, discounters had to innovate and even though both branded and discount competition was ramping up, Smile was up to the challenge. Photos of their stations show a wide variety of merchandise being offered, including picnic supplies, toys, even plastic rowboats being offered to attract attention. A savings stamp program was developed, much like many other discounters would offer, eventually giving way to major Gold Bond and Sperry and Hutchinson stamp programs.
Also of note in this era is the fact that Superior Petroleum, the original Barringer family operation, signed on to distribute Phillips 66 products in 1956, in that company’s noted market expansion north along the Eastern Seaboard in the 1950s.
The 1960s saw the introduction of an automatic car wash at one location, and then, dissatisfied with the design, the development of their own car wash equipment and installation at multiple Smile stations throughout Western North Carolina. A subsidiary was formed to build the car washes, and the design package was offered to other operators elsewhere in the United States. Also this era saw the development of Smile’s largest stations, a multi-bay outlet in the parking lot of Hickory’s largest shopping center at the time, and an interesting truck stop built into a hillside along Interstate 40 at Marion, NC that still exists today under different ownership. For smaller locations, a replacement for the original streamline design was introduced, with a number of these being stations constructed in the far western part of the state.
In 1968, Barringer Oil (Emmitt Barringer’s Cities Service distributorship in Lenoir) was purchased by Sun Oil in Sunoco’s move to control a network of subsidiary jobbers all across the Tar Heel state. Earl Barringer sold his branded Atlantic operation to Sun Oil subsidiary, Barringer Oil in 1971, and those tiny, rural outlets were rebranded from Atlantic to Sunoco at that time. I well remember when the Crossnore, NC station, just down from my grandparent’s garden site, took on the Sunoco brand.
The 1970s saw new challenges and new opportunities. Self service gasoline first became more than an experiment in North Carolina in 1968, when Jordan Oil began operating some of their Hy-Rocket and Spur branded stations in Asheville on a self-serve basis. Today’s convenience store is an outgrowth of neighborhood grocery stores in small towns and cities (sometimes called “curb markets” here), as well as general stores in rural areas. Some have sold gasoline for years, but many of the small town and suburban sites did not. In 1968, Greensboro lawyer Lawrence Edgerton developed a program to place two underground tanks, two gas pumps and a control console at curb markets across central Carolina. The brands were ‘U-Fill’er Up” and “Ole”. The store operator received a commission on each gallon sold, with meters being read and commissions paid each week. The industry referred to these types of operation as “tie-in” marketing. It took off like wildfire all across the state. Smile developed a similar program, offering the Gas-Up brand to commission agent stores all across the western half of NC. Ultimately, parts of this arrangement would outlast the Smile branded stations. At their branded Smile outlets, the company began experimenting with self service in the early 1970s, and was perhaps the first independent gasoline marketer in the state to develop their own convenience store design, opening several stores in Hickory.
It was also about this time that Smile developed their most innovative product. Remember that in addition to the convenience store tie-ins, self service gasoline in the early years was often accomplished on an “unattended” coin-operated basis, and North Carolina was the leader in these unattended sites, still referred to those of us in the equipment business as “Carolina One-Arm Bandits”. Completely unattended, these sites were set up in remote locations with only pumps and coin acceptors, and perhaps a canopy. To compliment this type of operation, Smile Oil developed a coin-operated oil can vendor. Designed to hold up to 180 quart cans in five different product lines, Smile’s “Oil Station” was offered to marketers coast-to-coast, and were used at each of the more than 30 Smile stations and at many other locations. These machines are the ultimate in oil can racks, and a great oil can collectible accessory.
Sadly, the two gas shortages of the 1970s took their toll on every independent gasoline marketer. During the oil embargo of the early 1970s, refiners essentially stopped offering unbranded gasoline, preserving the limited supply for their own branded outlets. Independents and discounters, which had purchased “unbranded” gasoline from refiners since the 1920s, were caught without sources of supply. Many of these companies had to close all of their outlets; most every operation lost at least a station or two. It was in this era that many historic brands disappeared forever. Smile survived the early shortage of 1973-74 relatively intact, and the diversification effort in the mid-1970s helped, but the shortage of 1978-79 proved to be a near-death blow to the company.
Gasoline marketing is often a guessing game. In order to guarantee supply, a marketer often has to agree to purchase quantities of products at locked-in prices months in advance. The gamble often works in their favor, since as we’ve seen lately, pricing always tends to rise, but when world events come together to drive prices down, the locked in price still prevails and marketers who guessed wrong are stuck with product that they paid more for than competitive prices will allow any return. They are often forced to sell at a loss, or close stations and continue to pay for storage until pricing is back in line with costs. Having lived through the earlier shortages, the management at Smile took what looked like prudent measures at the time and locked in supply at fixed rates. When the unexpected happened and prices fell abruptly in 1979, the company was on the wrong side of the equation and could not continue to operate. Coming off this disaster the company lost its leader when Earl Barringer died suddenly and unexpectedly in May 1980. Within a couple of months, the Barringer family had sold Smile to an investment group, and within a few years all of the Smile branded operation was gone, and the stations were sold off to competitors or closed. Some of the sites continue in operation today under other ownership and signage. The Gas-up convenience store tie-in operation lasted into the late 1980s, but by that time major oil companies were developing their own store programs, and the days of the commission gasoline operations for existing local stores was over.
Some collectibles from the company are known. As of this writing there has been no indication that the company ever used a pump globe, but there is no evidence that they didn’t, either. Chances lean towards the existence of globes, as most discounters in the South did so, at least in the 1930s and 40s. Most of the signage was hand-painted and of local manufacture, and none is known to survive at this time. There is some discussion of re-creating a limited number of the rooftop neon signs, perhaps in a smaller scale. The company distributed many brands of motor oils, through their own stations and through other outlets like auto parts houses, and for a limited time in the mid-1960s sold motor oil in sealed composite quarts under their own brand. The can that I have came from the Morganton station in 1966. At least one road map design was used, and I remember the stations giving away branded Cities Service maps in the 1964-1966 era. Fuel oil customers were given a wooden advertising thermometer with the company name and phone number, and these are found occasionally. Some other printed items are known, as well. Perhaps the most interesting collectible are the Smile “Oil Stations.” Phillip Barringer, Earl Barringer’s son and former Smile employee, is offering for sale some of these units that are still in their original packaging. There will is an advertisement elsewhere in this issue.

Almost 20 years ago I first began playing with the concept of a book with a working title “Gas for Less’, envisioning a book that would tell the story of independent discount gasoline marketers and showcase photos of stations and collectibles from these companies. Back in about 1990, I was working in Hickory one day and just stopped by the offices of Barringer and Associates, and spoke with Phillip Barringer about the business his father had created. At the time, however, the book was just a concept and I really didn’t have a forum for telling the story of the Smile stations, so I really took it no further. Ever since we began publishing Petroleum Collectibles Monthly in 1995, I figured that I now had a place to tell the stories of the independent local companies, and I had been meaning to get back in touch and see what material and photos he had. Earlier this year, in a conversation with the executive staff with the North Carolina Petroleum and Convenience Marketer Association, I presented the concept of a series of articles about North Carolina independent marketers that could, if finances allowed, be assembled in a book. With their blessings for the project, I began looking up surviving family members from some of North Carolina’s independents, and have been gathering biographical information and photos in hopes of creating articles just like the one you have just read. I have had enthusiastic participation from everyone I have contacted, and have collected material on three other NC independents that will be shaped into stories in upcoming issues. Other companies are being researched, and PCM readers can look forward to more of these articles over the next several years.

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