Al Bell’s Flying A Service Station

On November 7, 2008 by Michael Witzel

Flying A Gasoline Uniform Patch, Circa 1940s

During World War II, Allen P. Bell was transferred to the Air Base in Kingman, Arizona to work his tour of duty as an aircraft mechanic. On his 21st birthday he stepped off the train, walked down old Route 66 a ways, and observed the desolation. “What is this God forsaken place? he asked himself. He made his mind up right then and there that once discharged from the Air Corps., he wouldn’t return. Operating a service station—much less living there—was the farthest thought from his mind.

Nevertheless, the two-lane twist of concrete designated Highway 66 had other plans in store. When the war finally ended, Bell entered the job market and discovered that aircraft mechanics weren’t in very high demand. Stuck in the desert without prospects, he decided to try his luck at automotive repair.

Unfortunately, the life of a grease monkey proved to be unfulfilling. To make matters worse, the pay was meager. About that time, the good fortune of the highway smiled his way and presented itself in the form of an idea: “Why not manage a filling station? After all, gasoline rationing was finally over and Americans were taking to road in record numbers. Automobiles would always need fuel and there were was plenty of room for stations attendants that knew how to treat customers right.

At the same time, Bell figured he could take in a little mechanical work on the side, choosing only jobs he wanted. “I was never into overhauls and all that nuts and bolts stuff, explains Bell. A few years of tearing down and reassembling aircraft engines with his arms up to the elbows deep in grease cured him of that. The standard filling station routine of repairing flat tires, replacing broken fan belts, and tuning the occasional carburetor would be sufficient.

Under the Tutelage of Whiting Brothers

The year was 1947 when Al Bell got hooked up with a busy Whiting Brothers station down in the desert town of McConnico, right along the alignment of the old road. It pumped out a fair amount of gallons, but not enough for the enterprising Bell. At the end of nine months, he mastered the basics of managing a station and decided to move on. He was soon responsible for running a Mobil station on the Walapai Indian Reservation in Peach Springs (in a leasing arrangement).

Behind the station, a couple of roadside tourist cabins provided Bell with a little extra income from travelers, and later—trouble. One day, his young son Bob Boze was playing where he wasn’t supposed to and got his hand tangled in the maid’s washing machine wringer! Without proper emergency medical facilities in town, Bell loaded him in the truck and raced all the way to Kingman to the nearest doctor. Luckily, his arm was saved.

Later, the accident caused Bell to reconsider his remote location—and career—at the Flying Red Horse outpost. Concluding that safety was more important than pumping petroleum, he decided it would be best for the family to move back to Kingman. But, homesick for what he thought he was missing in the east (and recalling the youthful proclamation he made only a few short years ago) he announced to the family that he was moving the entire clan back to Swea City, Iowa. There, he had a lucrative offer to operate a brand new Phillips 66 station.

Bell Returns to the Desert

Far from the road that first sustained him, it took more than half a decade for Bell to realize that his fortunes didn’t lie in the heartland. Six years of icy winters and plowing of snow took their toll. What’s more, his wife Lilly had lost two babies in the interim—coloring the surroundings with unhappy memories. With her ongoing problems with asthma, Al decided it was time to hit the road again. They would pack up and head west, back to the desert cauldron that Bob Bell swore he would never return to.

Flying A Gasoline Advertisement, Circa 1960s

Flying A Gasoline Advertisement, Circa 1960s

And so, like so many others seeking a new life at the end of America’s two-lane rainbow, they packed their vehicle full with all of their belongings and pointed the car west. Arizona was their final destination and would be their new home … this time for good. Al Bell didn’t know it at the time, but a prominent refueling assignment in Kingman—right along Highway 66—was waiting for his return.

Once settled in Arizona, the highway called Bell to action with a combination of circumstances. It all started to fall into place when he was visiting a friend that ran the flashy Flying A station up on 14th Street. Bell was complimenting his fellow station man on the great setup when the proprietor jokingly asked if he wanted to buy it. For a second, Bell imagined himself pumping fuel under the glow of that fantastic sign out front and the hordes of customers he could win over with his own brand of service. For the time being, he suppressed his excitement and shrugged off the inquiry.

A short while later, a company representative from the Tidewater Oil Company began to telephone Bell at home, each call bringing with it a progressively better offer to take over the station. When the deal finally got so good that he couldn’t refuse, he agreed. With his experience and personal insight on how to run a refueling business, he was primed and ready to take the reigns of super service station with one goal in mind: to someday, pull in over $100 per day from the rush of motorists plying the two-lane.

The Las Vegas of Gas Stations

With that monstrous marquee, it would be easy. A double-sided, two-hundred and nine bulb show stopping extravaganza featuring a swooping arrow lit with sequential flashers—there wasn’t another sign like it along the entire length of the Will Rogers Highway. Mounted below its dual, electrified arrows, blazing tubes of neon branded the ultimate selling point motorist’s brain: “Jugs Iced Free! In an era when Thermadore air coolers served as automotive air conditioning and the words “cooled by refrigeration sent chills up and down one’s spine, it was the perfect slogan to attract travelers inebriated by Arizona’s desert heat.

Luckily, part of the arrangement Bell made with the refiner was the cover the electric bill. It was a good deal, since the three-story signpost sucked up more than $150 worth of juice in one month! From Memorial Day until the end of September, it shone without rest. Driving in from the outskirts of Kingman on a hot summer’s night—it appeared like a roadside apparition, one that belonged more on the Las Vegas strip than in the quiet community of Hilltop. Motorists were attracted to the Flying A Service Station as if Al Bell had installed a huge electromagnet and hidden it inside one of his garage bays. Vacationers, snowbirds, outlaws, truck drivers, and those in search of a new life out west were drawn in and stopped to get gas. During the summer, hundreds of cars streamed in for service, many coasting on fumes.

To the motorist, it was like entering the promised land of petroleum: Their were eight lanes and four service islands—each equipped with three gasoline dispensers. When a car pulled in, four young men dressed in white cotton overalls with their names embroidered on the breast pocket attacked the cars simultaneously. The first boy in bow tie asked the rehearsed line “Can I fill it with 100 plus Octane? The second lad proceeded to wash all of the windows—the front windows, the side windows, the back windows—everything made of glass! Meanwhile, the third service attendant rushed to check the air pressure in all of the tires while a fourth pump jockey began checking the oil level under the hood.

California Bound and Jugs Iced Free

As the height of the American service ethic and gas station style was being played out on the concrete, Bell’s son, Bob (fully recovered from his wringer accident and an active little leaguer) sprinted to the driver’s side window and asked the burning question that was on everyone’s mind: “Got any jugs you want iced? A heavy-duty York ice machine cranked out the precious cubes at the rate of 450 pounds a day, providing steady work for the younger Bell and a means to save money from tips. He was only nine years old when he began toting the frozen crystals to the customers and worked the Flying A every season until he was out of high school.

Bob Boze Bell recalls those busy days with fondness: “What was amazing about working at the station was that everybody in the 50’s and 60’s was bound for California. Many thought it was the promised land out there—you could see it in their eyes. They would come out of their cars—and it would be July in Kingman with a temperature of 103 degrees outside—and they’d ask how far it was to California! I’d say about 60 miles. They’d say: Oh, thank God! Well, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that 60 miles away was California, all right—Needles, California, the hottest place on the planet Earth, next to Death Valley, which was their next stop after Needles! Sometimes, I wished I could be there with them just to see the look on their faces when they crossed the border and realized it was 122 degrees outside!

Working for tips from the customers he replenished with ice, Bob spent most of his childhood at the Flying A. Curiously enough, the pocket change paled in comparison to the goodies he picked up by other means. It seemed that every other day another customer would ask if he could trade gas for merchandise. “We’re out of money and we gotta’ make it to California they all said. Of course, their cars were packed with personal belongings—items that suddenly became less important than a gallon of gas.

Bob’s dad was sympathetic to their plight and always found something he could use in exchange for a tankful. And more often than not, the traded items ended up in the hands of an appreciative ice-boy! The great highway brought in more stuff than could ever be imagined, including a set of World War II binoculars, cameras, a Bowie knife, drums, fishing poles … everything a boy loved. Ironically, the trunks of the passing automobiles became an extension of the junior Bell’s toy box.

Real Adventures in Pumping Gasoline

Still, the collection of merchandise was just a minor benefit of working the station. There was nothing to compare with the real-life adventures that were played out daily at the Flying A. Who needed television?

One afternoon, an actual police chase passed right out front. Bob was pumping gas at the time when he heard sirens approaching. He stood there with the filler nozzle in hand, watching the pursuit in progress. The cop in the cruiser, Floyd Cisney, was his little league coach and a part-time driver in the Kingman demolition derby! Cisney pulled up alongside the speeding car, passed it, and turned—forcing both vehicles from the road. “That part of Route 66 was a bottle-neck for stolen cars, explains Bell. “Cisney held the record for nabbing stolen autos with 5,000 arrests to his credit … God—it was exciting!

During a more serious brush with a criminal, Bob’s best friend lost his dad in a shoot-out. Sheriff Tarr was killed—shot in the stomach—at his inspection station on Highway 93, north of town. As Bell tells it, “There were some crazy kids who stole a car and were pulled over. Tarr asked them to empty their trunk and a gun was produced. He told them to give it up but they shot first. It was written up in Life magazine as a wild west shoot-out! During those three months of summer, the area around the Flying A was a wild place ! The roadside escapades had such an influence on Bob Bell that after his first year of work, he bought a book on the true west with his saved tip money. He became hooked on the excitement, and decided to make the subject his life’s work as an artist.

Hollywood Comes to Call

Even during slow times something interesting was always going on around the station. On a cold winter’s day in ‘61, Bob and his dad were sitting next door in the Tideway Cafe when a couple of curious characters pulled up in the lot. When the duo got out of their car, it was obvious to everyone that they were wearing beanies. They began acting strange, gazing around and holding up their hands to make a small frame—just like Hollywood directors do when they were scouting a good location for a movie. “I know they’re from Hollywood piped the younger Bell. “I just know it!

Al went outside to get the scoop and returned, informing everyone that they loved the layout of the station, the pumps, and most of al—the “Jugs Iced Free sign. They wanted to put the Flying A Service Station in pictures! A short while later, a flick starring Cornell Wilde called Edge of Eternity debuted in theaters. According to Bell, “It was a real B movie about a death at the Grand Canyon, a real time capsule of the Kingman area The station scene was shown on-screen for a total of thirty seconds, showcasing the flashing ice sign, the station, and the Tideway Cafe.

Harry Tindle ran the attached Tideway in cooperation with the Bells. It was a classic diner without tables, just fourteen stools around a counter where people would sit and eat. “We worked together explains Bell. “Somebody would come in and ask where they could get a good sandwich and I would say right next door. Somebody would ask Harry where they could get a tire fixed and he would say right next door! You gotta’ work together … we ran a real good business there.

But it was more than just hype. Both operations provided the kind of service customers liked. “I’ll never forget the breakfast brags the elder Bell. “Boy … he had a grill right in front where you could sit and watch him cook. He was sharp! Bacon and eggs, hash browns, toast, coffee—all for one buck! With all the motels in the area and people always in a hurry, business was brisk—enough to afford Kindle a pink Cadillac and power boat! They were often parked nearby, potent reminders of an American dream come true.

Reaching the Goal of High Volume

In 1959, Al Bell grabbed the brass ring for himself when he reached his earlier goal of earning $100 per day. Unfortunately, the success proved to be a double-edged sword. When Tidewater Oil took notice of his substantial receipts, an inevitable ultimatum came from corporate headquarters: they wanted to re negotiate a part of his lease in an attempt to siphon off more of the profits. According to Bell, the refiner informed him that he was “makin’ too much money!

When the talk of a rent hike elevated into a full-blown fighting match—Bell walked, taking his experience, know-how, and service station savvy right along with him. The luck of the highway was still with him, however: the Phillips Petroleum Company was opening a new refueling business in the Kingman area and they wanted him to man the pumps! Another operator took over the circuit breakers at the Flying A Service Station and—not surprisingly—it “went successfully downhill.

Eventually, Phillips Petroleum bought out the Associated Flying A stations in the west and the winged trademark slowly faded into obscurity. But that wasn’t really important. The sixties were more than half over, the country was undergoing a radical change, and Al Bell was getting out of the gas station business. His legs were giving him problems and his doctor advised that he take a load off. Running a gas station was no longer as easy as it used to be. It would never be again.

A Way of Life is Bypassed

When the implementation of major freeways rerouted most of the traffic around the old businesses in Kingman, the classic pumping venues were relieved of their status as highway havens. The great river of automobiles once flowing along Route 66 was reduced to a trickle, and there just weren’t enough customers to keep all of the businesses profitable. As a result, many closed. Others transformed themselves to accommodate the changing business.

With the advocacy of Ladybird Johnson’s “highway beautification program, it didn’t take long for the “Jugs Iced Free sign to be dismantled. Sadly, no one seemed to mind that a colorful piece of Kingman’s roadside history was being destroyed. After the twelve gas pumps and other evidence of refueling were removed, a business selling pottery and concrete bird baths occupied the shell of the former superstation. The Tideway Cafe’s great grub, the snappy full service attendants, the gleaming rest rooms, the young little-leaguer running out to the cars, visions of a pink Cadillac, and tons of complimentary ice cubes had evaporated in the searing heat of the Arizona desert. The memories of Al Bell’s Flying A Service Station had faded fast, as transitory as the ripples in the pools of rain water collected in the decorative basins for sale along the road.

4 Responses to “Al Bell’s Flying A Service Station”

  • Enjoyed this all over again! Great job. My father, who passed away in 1998, would have been quite proud of this. Very accurate down to the smallest detail (yes, it was 122 degrees when those tourists got to Needles!).

  • What a fascinating story – helped by the fact that we know the people (at least BBB) whose lives are portrated in the wonderfully written details. What an era and what a great business mind and ethic in Al Bell. Can see how this all helped shape the fascination of the true west and the artistry at work in the former “ice cube jockey”. Thanks.

  • Hey, first I want to say great blog. I don’t always agree with your opinion but it’s always a great read. Keep up the nice posting.

  • Great stories. Do you have any information on other gasoline companies in N. Arizona?

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