Duane’s. It’s one of the many things I hope never changes on Signal Mountain. Newer folks to town call it “Thomas’ Service Station,” which makes sense since that’s what the hand-painted sign over the front door says. But to my friends and me who grew up patching bicycle tires there, then buying gas for our very first jeep or truck (just a few gallons at a time…our teen-aged selves could never afford a whole tank), we call it simply “Duane’s.”
Located at the corner of Corral and Taft, Duane’s is the last northbound gas stop on the Mountain and one of the last FULL-service stations in the country. It’s where we learned to change our oil, get a few more miles out of our spark plugs, and—most importantly–shot the breeze with Duane and the assortment of neighbors always filing through. It’s where, to this day, we still tap our horn and wave when we drive by.
Picture “Wally’s Fillin’ Station” on The Andy Griffith Show. Duane’s is a gathering spot at daylight every morning for those long in years and deep on wisdom. The locals sit on the bench out front greeting the regulars, with cups of coffee in their hands and “Bo”, the fillin’ station dog, at their feet.
Signal Mountain born and bred, Duane’s is a hard-work, hard-won success story. He’s a man who measures his success in the satisfaction of long work days, the well-being of the young men he employs and mentors, and knowing the names of all his customers…their kids, their second cousins, and where they go to church.
“I was only 3 or 4 years old when this place was built by Harry Hudson in the mid-fifties,” Duane Thomas says. “Harry sold it to William Maddox in 1959 who owned it until 1969. I worked for Mr. Maddox as a teenager. Later on, I got a regular job and hated every minute of it! I just love getting greasy and I’ve always been mechanically inclined. In 1983, I decided I’m gonna buy this station and make a go of it.”
Duane has more than made a “go.” Through his 35 years of early morning truck repairs and midnight roadside rescues, Thomas’s Service Station has become a Signal Mountain institution offering a far-too-rare level of service.
“It’s the old-style station. We offer full-service only,” Duane is proud to say. “We still check your tires and clean your windshield.”
In the background of every conversation at Duane’s—whether about fuel pumps or politics–is that unmistakable “ring-ring, ring-ring.” You know that sound from years long gone when your car neared the pumps with your tires slowly rolling over that skinny black hose with the hidden bell. When we were kids, that bell cued a friendly, young attendant to trot out, fill your tank, check your oil, and ask about your kids. At Duane’s, that still happens.
“It’s 12-hour days, 6 days a week, but I love to come to work!” Duane says. “These are the greatest people in the world on Signal Mountain!”
Clearly, the feeling is mutual. Customers keep the station busier than ever some 50 years after Duane first got grease under his nails and in the three-and-a-half decades since the business has borne his name. “The good Lord has really blessed us,” Duane says with the genuine humility of a self-made man.
Duane will tell you he’s a grateful and happy man, but no longer as young as he used to be. “I’m almost 67 and kinda wanting to slow down.” No need to worry. He’s spent the last 18 years grooming his nephew Jason Randolph to take over. “Seeing Jason do such a great job running this place thrills me to death and is one of the most gratifying things in my life.” You can see the pleasure Duane takes in deferring to his capable successor. “I’m hoping he’ll hire me to come in and open in the mornings and work a couple hours…that would be perfect!”
What would really be perfect is, Lord willing, it’s 100 years or more that Thomas’ Service Station is on that corner serving and convening Signal Mountain folks. I’m optimistic. When I popped in last week to shoot the breeze with Duane, Jason and “the boys,” I heard Duane say, “We love our customers. Nothing is going to change around here.”