Motor Driven

‘Fill ’er up?’ is still asked at this family service station

by Will Lindner

michael_stone_2014 In 1985, Michael W. Stone followed his love of auto repair and bought the former MacDonald’s Service Station at Hill and Washington streets in Barre. He incorporated Stones Service Station on Oct. 29 of that year.

At 56 years of age, Mike Stone, of Stone’s Service in Barre, is far from old. There’s barely a hint of gray in his brown hair and mustache, and when he’s busy — which is most of the time — you’ve got to move fast to keep up with him.

Yet in some ways he seems to be from a bygone era. Take his work ethic: It’s probably not fair to associate a strong work ethic exclusively with older workers, but it is a “traditional” value, and Stone has it in spades — to the extent that people who care about him wish he’d let up a little.

“Mike’s a hard-working guy,” says Guy Isabelle, a Barre resident and auto aficionado. He has known Stone for decades and been a customer virtually since Stone’s Service opened in 1985. “He’s very driven. I wish he could learn to relax a little more.”

For another thing, he has very little use for TV. “I just love the woods,” he says. “I do a lot of thinking in the woods. I even fix cars in the woods, in my head. It’s amazing how much thinking you can do on an eight-hour snowmobile ride. I don’t sit in front of the television very much.”

More than anything, though, the link to earlier times is what happens when a driver pulls up to the gas pumps at Stone’s Service. Within moments, someone appears in a blue pin-striped shirt with an emblem on the breast, blue work pants, and perhaps a soiled red rag hanging from his rear pocket, ready to pump the gas and check the tires. Suddenly, it’s the 1950s all over again.

Yet the real action at this small corner gas station, located at Washington and Hill streets two blocks from Barre’s downtown, is in the three bays of the garage, which are all equipped with hydraulic lifts. Rarely are any of them empty. There’ll be a blue-shirted mechanic toiling under the front end of one hoisted vehicle, another bent under the hood of a car on the garage floor, someone else changing tires. And then the bell dings, signifying a gasoline customer, and one of the crew drops his tools and goes out to fill ’er up.

It’s a full-service station, one of a vanishing breed.

“They used to be a dime a dozen,” says Darren McGuire, manager at Fisher Auto Parts in Barre, who says he does business with Stone’s Service virtually every day, six days a week. “Now there’s only Stone’s and Cameron’s Garage in East Barre. We’ve worked with Mike since 1986. He’s a good, solid person, with quality technicians. He runs a good shop.”

That’s just what Stone — and his family members — envisioned since he was very young and already exhibiting a mechanical turn of mind. Most children play with their toys. Says Stone, “I used to take my toys apart.”

The Barre of his youth was different from today. He recalls that there used to be 27 service stations in this small city that’s known for its granite-processing sheds. When Stone and his brother and sister were growing up, their father, Bill, was employed at Allen Lumber Co. (he worked there for 40 years, retiring in 1998). His parents divorced, and Bill was remarried to Suzanne. To them, Stone’s future seemed inevitable.

“It was always our dream that I would have a service station on the corner,” he says.

Which corner? Who knew? But one of the best locations and most established filling stations in town was MacDonald’s Service Station at Hill and Washington streets, which had been operated by George and Rita MacDonald since 1941. There was no real auto repair going on there, Stone says; George ran the business and “Rit” (Rita’s nickname, pronounced “Reet”) pumped the gas. But they were an institution on the south end of town.

Stone graduated from Spaulding High School in 1976 and soon took a construction job that he describes as “hauling concrete forms around.” It was a poor fit, and lasted only three months. He landed his first mechanic’s job about a block south of the MacDonalds’ Mobil station, at Winn’s Gulf. This was a neighborhood close to the homes of well-to-do granite industry executives and other professionals, and one of them, impressed by the young man’s industriousness, offered him a job running an overhead crane at his company’s shed. Stone accepted, but found the work monotonous and the surroundings noisy. There was another detour, as a lathe operator. Nothing he tried held his interest in the same way that auto mechanics did.

During this period, Stone also experienced a family tragedy, when his mother, Karlene Stone, was killed by an accidental gun discharge at the age of 41.

Eventually, he returned to Winn’s Gulf. “I went back for less money and no benefits,” he says. “But at least I was going in the right direction.” Before long he was running the service garage.

By now it was 1985, and the MacDonalds, who were aging, decided to sell their station. For some reason, just when they had listed the property for sale but before the news got out, Rita MacDonald dropped in at Allen Lumber, and Bill Stone — who, he says, never worked the counter — was at the counter. Rit mentioned the sale, and the Stones jumped.

“Everybody and his brother had wanted to buy that place,” says Stone. “We went to the Realtor that night and put it under deposit.” He then gave his notice at Winn’s Gulf, which was difficult. “But how could I not do this for myself? I literally rolled my toolbox down the street” to what, on October 29, 1985, was incorporated as Stone’s Service Station Inc.

The stockholders were, and still are, his father; his stepmother, Suzanne; and himself. Each had a role. Bill put in time after work every evening looking after administrative details; Suzanne, who had her own local business, The Ravioli Shop, did bookkeeping and clerical jobs. Stone worked. And worked.

“I was young,” he says. “I gave people everything I had. Often I would do things for nothing. It was never about the dollars. It was about service and good will and caring about people. It’s always been that way and still is.”

Family members have been involved all along. Cindy Stone-Reed, Stone’s sister, and Mary Stone, his wife, helped with the bookkeeping while they raised their children. Sadly, both died in their early 40s, Cindy in 2000 and Mary in 2002. Stone’s brother, Tim, briefly worked in the shop, before founding Tim Stone Trucking Co., with a fleet of six dump trucks. A great-uncle, Pat Guy, helped out, often for no pay.

The family connection endures. Cindy’s son, Pat Reed, 26, has worked for his uncle for six years, and Stone’s son, Nick, 25, nearly as long. The two, along with more recent employee Justin Johnson, represent the youth movement at Stone’s Service.

“Nick has been around me and engines his whole life,” says Stone. “The kid’s been welding since he was 6 years old.”

The longest-serving employee is Mike Moulton, who started in 1989. Tall, blond, and impeccably polite, Moulton is practically an institution at Stone’s Service. “He was so young when he started working here he didn’t even have a driver’s license,” says Stone. “He’s been unbelievably reliable.”

Auto mechanics has changed considerably over the years. Points and coils gave way to high-energy ignition (HEI), and electric steering boxes replaced the steering shaft. Cars, as every frustrated shade-tree mechanic knows, became more computerized. Says Stone, “It was scary. But they also came out with electronic equipment to analyze problems, so it didn’t end up being as complicated as everyone thought it would be.”

He cites one principal that remains a constant for those with a mechanical mindset: “Anything can be fixed once you know how it works.”

“Mike can troubleshoot anything,” says Isabelle, who’s liable to drive up in almost anything (his current favorite car is a 1991 BMW 318is). “He’s got a mind that’s always willing to tackle a problem, even if he thinks he doesn’t know anything about it.”

Stone has had to be resourceful in other ways as well, raising Nick and daughter Alicia alone since Mary’s passing. But now Nick is ensconced at the station, and Alicia, who graduated from Johnson State College, is preparing to take graduate courses in psychology at St. Michael’s College.

Stone’s partner for the last 10 years, Terri Crawford, works for the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, and the two collaborate in another passion: leadership of the Central Vermont ATV club. Terri serves as treasurer, while Stone, as trail master, oversees 17 miles of Vermont ATV Sportsman’s Association trail running through West Topsham, Washington, and Orange (where they live). His vision is to extend it farther and provide a resource attractive to everyone, not just four-wheeler enthusiasts.

“I’m worried about whether we’ll continue accessing the old town roads and rail beds,” he says. “I want to fight to keep them open for the public.”

In another way, the public is already benefitting from those backwoods trails, because when Mike Stone is cruising them, in summer or winter, he’s contemplating, and probably solving, his customers’ mechanical problems — in his mind.