In 1924 my father, Eldon McKibbin, converted a small livery stable in Guthrie Center into a repair shop for “horseless carriages.” The sandy stucco building that became “McKibbin’s Garage” belonged to Charlie Nelson, a local jeweler and watch repairman.
Charlie, born two years after the conclusion of the Civil War, was 57 years old at the time, my father 24.
“How d’ya wanna arrange the rent?” Dad recalled asking.
“How ‘bout 20 dollars a month, Eldon?”
“Sounds good to me. Where do I sign?”
“Oh, we don’t need any of that paper stuff. Let’s just shake on it. I’ll leave the rent where it is as long as you stay put.”
“Sounds like a deal,” Dad said as he and Charlie clutched hands.
The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War followed. Dad’s repair business continued as automobiles became an integral part of the American existence.
Dad took a whirl as a Hudson dealer in 1937. But his timing was bad with the depression squelching buyer demand. He only sold one car — to himself when the buyer backed out. His ’37 Hudson Terraplane, a fancy car for its time with an electric gear shift, became Dad’s special pride until it succumbed to old age twenty years later.
During Dad’s decades at McKibbin’s Garage his business became a local setting for cracker barrel socializing. Retired men and farmers in town for sale day gathered around the potbellied stove that provided heat for the shop in the winter and supplied a scratch surface for matches to light pipes and cigarettes.
Chalmers Hogelin, Carmen Kester, and Walt Hartman were among the regulars who visited almost daily at Dad’s social club. Others drifted in and out, including his landlord Charlie Nelson.
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As a boy, and more so as an adult, I wondered how my dad could manage a business with a group of idling men hanging about, sitting on a wooden bench by the stove, smoking, chatting, and offering advice on how to repair cars.
“A lot of those folks don’t have any place to go,” my dad offered in suggesting McKibbin’s Garage provided a refuge for the lonely.
My father’s thoughtfulness had a reward, a lifesaving one, on a day when he worked beneath a car and the jack gave way. Pinned against the concrete floor and unable to breathe, his crony crowd grabbed the car’s front bumper and hoisted it while others pulled him to safety.
Eventually the technical advancements of modern automobiles took a toll on a self-taught mechanic who learned his trade in the days of Model T’s, Model A’s, and Hupmobiles. Dad struggled to keep up with such innovations as automatic transmissions, power steering, and air conditioning. Foreign automobiles using the metric system required special equipment he didn’t have. And then a stroke left him unable to grip tools, a death blow to a mechanic.
But Dad continued to go to his shop daily when back on his feet, performing minor repairs like changing oil and replacing batteries. His pals continued to gather for daily chitchat, and sometimes, quite literally, offered their mechanic friend a hand.
Dad’s 20-dollar-a-month agreement with Charlie Nelson continued into a fifty-fourth year until August 20, 1978, when his longtime landlord passed away. Charlie was three days short of his 111th birthday — the oldest man in the United States at the time of his death.
Dad retired shortly thereafter. A few years later he joined Charlie for a handshake in heaven.
Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.