The Billings Outpost

Gas wars forged success of Charlie Sparboe here

A gas war is hell.

Charlie Sparboe liked money. Not wealth, just plain money. Coin of the realm. Bank notes and credit. A large silver ingot he used as a door stop.

His life ended in the coin shop where he sold silver and gold. He bought Vietnamese currency embossed on gold foil from refugees fleeing the Tet offensive. He sold nearly new Lincoln sedans for old U.S. coins. He accepted silver change at 100 times face value. Car buyers were credited $10 for dimes, $25 for quarters and $50 for halves.

Charlie’s grandfather was a wealthy man, his grandmother a pillar of society in their Minnesota community.

His grandfather died. The family fortune evaporated. The family mansion was sold to pay debts. And the grand dame of the family was reduced to scrubbing floors for women who once envied the Sparboe wealth.

Teenaged Charlie worked like a slave, tucking away every spare dime. His bitterness grew with his nest egg. He hated the small-minded community where he was reared. He hated those who looked down upon his grandmother. Someday, he vowed, he would show them all.

His redemption began with a construction job. The pay was good, but a poker game produced the real money. The construction boss took Charlie under his wing and turned the game into a gold mine.

In the mid 1950s, Eisenhower was in the White House, God was in his Heaven and Americans enjoyed peace and prosperity. Sparboe’s prosperity was fed by new cars. American autoworkers enjoyed employee discounts on the cars they made. Sparboe bought them really cheap and sold them fairly cheap.

Meanwhile, his father had moved to Billings where his excavation company struggled with debt. Sparboe senior called, “Help!” Charlie drove west and was soon digging trenches for sewer lines in a fast-growing Billings.

The term “workaholic” had not yet been coined, but Charlie was one. Working obsessively (and making money the same way) he began buying real estate.

One piece of land had an old filling station on it. Sparboe used it as a shop and fuel depot.

When an old man asked him for job, a light winked on. Sparboe painted a sign advertising gasoline for sale at a price that caused drivers to stand on their brakes.

The first gas war was on.

Billings was on its way to having a filling station on every corner. Sporadic gas wars drove one after another into bankruptcy. Once sold in grocery stores and livery stables, gasoline had caught the attention of big operators who acquired four, five or perhaps a dozen stations. The money was in the motorists’ pockets.

Cranking back the price on the pumps put marginal station owners out of business. For the big dealers, the loss of $100,000 selling below cost would quickly be repaid in the harvest of new business migrating from the dead stations.

Some of the defunct stations were converted into beauty parlors, cheap cafes, even bars. Most were closed and sat waiting for a buyer who would tear them down and spend thousands of dollars on removing underground tanks to turn a piece of real estate into a greasy lot.

Gas wars did not hurt everyone. Tourists caught wind of them hundreds of miles away. The family from Maryland bound for Yellowstone Park would buy four gallons of gas in Custer to make it 50 miles into Billings and cheap petrol.

Gas wars … mmmm … oh, the nostalgia. Don’t you love the smell of hydrocarbons in the morning?

Independent gasoline retailers (AKA Joe Small Businessman) lobbied the Legislature for succor. Legislators responded with a law banning gas sales below wholesale.

This attempt to “protect the little guy” flopped. By the time a new law banning below-cost sale of gasoline went into effect, most of the independents were out of business. Gas wars ended but Sparboe kept up the pressure, selling gas at his several stations a cent or so below the local market.

His bitterness toward the snobs back in Minnesota never subsided. He flew home for his 25th high school reunion in a multi-engine airplane. How do you like me now?

His romance with money budded into a coin shop on Grand Avenue. A serial killer who specialized in robbing coin shops cased Sparboe’s store, walked in some time later and shot the owner dead.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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