Duquesne’s Greasy Spoon

My father operated a service station on South First Street directly opposite of the Holy Name Rectory. It was named Volk’s Service. I was told that it was a car dealership aone time, as evidenced by a “showroom” that was to the right front of the building. However, when my dad operated, it was a repair shop for automobiles and occasionally, for painting cars as well.

My dad had purchase the shop from its previous owner in its entirety, lot, stock and barrel. Along with the multitude of tools and equipment, dad was also the proud owner of all of the dirt and grease that had accumulated throughout the garage’s many rooms. I hate to admit it, but it really was the stereotypical greasy, dirty, oily garage. Initially, Dad tried to clean up the place a bit and had succeeded, but that success was more in his own eyes than in the eyes of a casual observer.

Despite the rather unkempt conditions of the garage, his business flourished. The location certainly was a very positive factor. Men were able to drop off their car as they reported for the Daylight Shift at the mill which was only two blocks away and, were able to pick up the vehicle after their shift had ended at 3 p.m. Beyond the convenience of location, was my dad’s amazing talent for repairing cars of that era. His reputation was that of an ace mechanic who had the ability to diagnose the mechanical problems by just listening to the car while the engine was running. In virtually every instance, he would nail the problem immediately. In addition to his automotive expertise, my dad also had a reputation of being very honest in his diagnosis and suggested repairs. Unlike many less scrupulous mechanics at that time, Dad never overcharged, over bid or fabricated problems. Even the pastors of the area churches came to Dad for their repairs.

Among the items that Dad received with the purchase of the building and its equipment was a Bersted Company Electric Griddle. He told me that when he first discovered it in a drawer, he almost threw it away. However, he decided to keep it, clean it up, and see if it worked. As expert as he was at repairing cars, his tinkering skills were equally adept. The man could repair anything he set his mind to. During WWII, Dad served in the Army as the head mechanic at Chanute Air Force Base near Chicago. His responsibility was the repair of damaged aircraft as well as the instruction of other soldiers on repair techniques. After his enlistment ended, he was recruited by the Ford Motor Corp. to serve as one of their national instructors on auto repair, but turned down the opportunity in lieu of family commitments. Husbands/Father’s values were much different in those days. It was ALWAYS, family first.

The electric griddle was expertly repaired by my dad. He told me he had replaced the frayed cord and broken plug. The switch controlling the temperature was replaced with a simple off and on switch since a replacement part wasn’t available, at least not at Schink’s. He said that one of the heating elements was broken, so he fabricated one out of a coil from a discarded automobile part. OK, perhaps I exaggerated a bit when I said it was expertly repaired. Probably a better description of the repair job would be jerry-rigged.

In spite of the lack of replacement parts and the modifications made, this griddle lasted for years and years and ended up creating an impromptu diner whenever necessary. Since my brother Steve and I attended Holy Name Grade School, we would occasionally make our way up to the garage to have our lunch. My dad would manage to make these unbelievably delicious hot dogs on toasted buns on this tiny grill. (We would usually wend our way to the garage for lunch whenever we heard that powdered eggs were on the cafeteria menu that day. Mrs. Cusick and Mrs. McConnell were good, but NO ONE was that good to make them palatable!)

That little grill became the equivalent of the bar at Cheers. Guys would hang out at the garage just to kibitz (or “BS” as my dad would say) with my dad and the other guys who were hanging out. At some point, the men would mention they were hungry and would be leaving to go home to grab a bite to eat. Truth be known, the thought of going home was the farthest thing from their minds. What they were actually requesting, as if in some secret clandestine code, was for my dad to prepare something on “the grill!”

Dad maintained an old fridge in the empty showroom. In it he would keep some pop for my brother and I, most likely Mission Orange or Grape, as well as hot dogs, ground meat and steaks. My dad loved to cook for the guys. He would prepare these incredible lunches on this tiny makeshift grill almost every day. He bought his meat at the GBU since they always gave him a “deal.” Don’t ask me how he made those arrangements, but somehow he did. He would prepare these grilled steak sandwiches topped with grilled onions and peppers and serve them to whatever guy or guys happen to be visiting at lunchtime. Among his more frequent visitors were Fr. Shaughnessy from Holy Name and Dr. Fletcher, our family doctor from South 2nd Street, Ernie Woodward from Woody’s Drug Store, Jerry Reed and Pop Arms. Mayor Kopriver was also an occasional “diner.” Hey, who doesn’t like a free lunch!?!

Dad kept that griddle in tip-top condition until the garage was forced to close as a result of the “redevelopment” in Duquesne. I’m not sure what ever happened to “the wonder griddle.” I suppose it was discarded just like his business was. I think that a piece of my dad died when he closed. The guys who frequented his place, looked beyond those things one would find in a garage, the oil, the grease. They didn’t see my dad as some “grease monkey.” They saw him as a friend, a pal, a generous man who would have given them the shirt off of his back if they asked. There was nothing pretentious about the food he prepared for his friends. It was friendship food, food for the soul.

Stories such as this, is why I am writing this blog. Your father may have been among the company of men who frequented Volk’s Sales and Service. My children and their children will be able to know more about their grandfather or great grandfather as a result of these stories. After all, we are “their past.” The way of life that we led, and the strong moral compasses that were given to us by our hunky parents must be recognized and appreciated. I know I certainly do. Thanks Mom and Dad and thank you Duquesne.

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21 Responses to Duquesne’s Greasy Spoon

  1. Chuck Swietlik says:

    To bob chermonitz. Do u have any old photos of Schrieber Chevrolet Dealership? My name is Chuck Swietlik and grew up in Duquesne graduated in 1963 . I’m a gear head car guy an like old photos of car related subjects . Please send to pattyann2003@juno.com hope this is passed on to u

  2. michael voron says:

    Your Dad had a funny car parked in front of his garage. It was a white Henry J. I bet Leno
    would like to have one . Holy Name Alumni.

  3. Bob Chermonitz says:

    Jim, there was a time when being a mechanic was one of the the most admired professions a man could aspire to, and rightfully so. I was always amazed with things like points, plugs and condensors. How they figured out what the problems were and what needed to be done to fix it. I remember your dad’s place b/c I went to Holy Name with you but since we weren’t allowed to cross the street (nuns) I was only in there once or twice. In our day mechanics literally made the world go round and men would trade the names of the best in low whispers so as not to let too many in on the secret! I grew up across the street from Schreiber Chevrolet in Duquesne Place. God knows I spent as much time as I could watching the mechanics and learning their names. This was before insurance companies put up signs saying you weren’t allowed in the service areas. Years later, after teaching school for 10 yrs and little money, I took a job as sales manager of a Chevrolet store and realized how much the car business (sales and service) can get into your blood. Needless to say I still hungout with the mechanics when I could. After 21 years I left for a different type of sales (pharma). But the old car saying stills applies: Sales may sell the 1st car, BUT, service sells the rest! God bless all those who knew how to “tinker” and made the world right for the rest of us.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks for your awesome point of view Bob. I have to confess that I have secretly held a grudge against “Grease Money” for its business name. I always thought it was so derogatory toward a very honorable profession!

  4. Nancy Michunas Binkney says:

    I enjoyed reading about your Dad and the garage and the old grill. While I don’t recall the garage, I do remember going to the Plaza theater to see horror movies on Saturdays. I was probably about 10 years old at the time. I remember Dr. Provan and the dentist in the plaza building, Dr. Silverman.

  5. Barry Long says:

    Dr. Fletcher bought the first Studebaker after the wwii.It looked like the front & back matched. Bob Hope made many jokes about the car. He had the first SCHNAUZER Dog my family ever saw. We got one after we left town & moved to PLEASANT HILLS. It was killed by a car & my mother & kid sister cried & would burst out crying for days after.

  6. judy kray lochner says:

    There was Dr. Schink on Grant and 3rd St. He made house calls. Dr. Botkin was with Dr Provan

  7. Suzanne (Danko) Filotei says:

    I just love all the stories – It seems as you age you really love the good times of your younger years! As for the Mom & Pops – I remember Harry Simerols (sp) at the end of Meadow Street. They had the best Ham Salad made with “JUMBO” ! I loved a ham salad sandwich with grape ade. When my Mom passesd away 6 years ago he came to her funeral, that was nice of him to do. Talk about Dr. Fletcher he was located in the best building, I wonder if that building still exists today. I remember feeling really special walking into his office. He must have had the monoply on deliveries. Does anyone remember going to the movies when you were in grade school and everyone took a lunch with them. First of all we couldn’t do it often because we didn’t have the $, but when we went we were there its seems like all afternoon. As soon as we sat down everyone started eating their lunch, everything wrapped in waxed paper and our Mom’s gave us our drinks in mason jars. But there was always that chance of dropping our bags, breaking our drink jars, and our lunch was ruined. Ahh those were the days!!!!! Our kids today have no clue!

  8. Jane Fulmer Pocsatko says:

    I remember you Dad’s shop. It was a Willys dealership. They sold Henry Js and Studerbakers.
    The other doctor in town was Dr Botkin. He was next to Gallaghers.
    Does anyone remember there being a live nativity scene at the corner of Grant and 2nd St. Right where the steps angled down out of the park? I remember my parents taking all of us there the week before Christmas.
    I also remember the Little League games on the park in front of the high school. We would climb all over those walls in the outfield. No fencses or any protection from falling. We just never did.

    • Laurine E. says:

      I remember those walls and the bleechers. When I was reaaly young, they scared me cause they were a little too big for me. I also remember summer crafts and games down in the lot adjacent to the Police Station/City Hall. All the supplies were kept in the rooms at the bottom of all those steps.

    • Jack schalk says:

      Jane,
      Jims dads place was a Kaiser-Frazier-Henry J dealership before becoming Volks Service.
      My dad had a place on Grant Ave across from the War Memorial, Schalks Sales and Service and he was the Willys dealership.
      I can remember riding in the 4th of July parades in the new Jeepster or Jeep. Lotsa fun!

  9. Lou A. says:

    I have one special recollection of your father, Jim; allow me to ramble. As a sophmore commuter at DU,(1970) I was eligible for a parking pass. This meant I needed a car, which my father bought from my uncle John for $50, a Fire engine red, 1961 Ford Fairlane convertible with well over 100,000 miles. Seems it needed a tune up. Your father was managing the auto department at Penney’s in Eastland. As we knew your his reputation for integrity and the fact that Aunt Mary and Uncle Lou had live with us, it was a no-brainer. Took the car to “the Mall”, talked to your dad, and walked around for and hour or so until it would be ready. Got in the car, started it and drove up to the Blvd; the car was smoking, banging, chattering, etc, etc… WORSE than when i took it in. Got it back to the shop, and again spoke with your dad. Seems he allowed a new fella to do the job and he had reversed two spark plug wires on the distributor cap! Your dad fixed the situation and refunded my money. “Never send a boy to do a man’s job” was all he said. He was a good man! PS drove that car for 4 years with no other engine work!

  10. Tom Lane says:

    Dr Fletcher brought me into the world also. Was there other doc’s in Duquesne? I remembe that Jag, Jim. It was a pale green convertible if I remember it correctly. I remember him telling my mom and dad how he got a ticket on the turnpike for going over a hundred! As a little boy, I was awed!!!!! He was a different doc. To say the least. He was the first to diagnose me with asthma back when I was about 10. I would get short of breath when I overexerted myself. His prescription, sit down and rest. beautiful.

    • Paula (Manns) Niedoba says:

      There sure was another Doc in town…Dr. Schink. Drs Botkin and Provan seemed to take over when he retired.

    • Laurine E. says:

      Yes there were several other doctors in Duquesne. That building on First Street had doctors, dentists, etc. One of them was Dr. Weiss who was a heart specialist. I can’t remember my pediatrician’s name. but I do remember whenever I went to see him he would always sing “Laurine, my Queen, it’s lilac time.” There was more he would sing but that’s all I remember,

      • Paula (Manns) Niedoba says:

        When I was about 6 years old I had a really bad flu. My mom called Dr Provan and he came to our house. My brother’s guitar was in the room and when he saw it he picked it up and began playing me a song. I don’t think he charged extra…

  11. Barry Long says:

    Oh to see those names in print. Do you remember the “secret”doorbell ring at the back door of Dr.Fletcher’s office ? He would come down from his apartment over the office any time day or night & take care of you or yours. When my brother John [9 years younger] got his M.D; my phone call was immediate to insure that Dr.Fletcher got the first invitation to his graduation. I was brought into the world by Dr. Fletcher & remember him visiting our house on Grant Ave; to give me a Tetanus shot after I tramped on rusty nail in the W.P.A. shack at Wilmot & GrantAVE. I was made to wear shoes the rest of that summer, much to my chagrin.

    • Jim says:

      Barry,
      There are a number of things I remember about Dr. Fletcher. Firs was his awesome 1957 Jaguar! Long and sleek. My dad attempted to take care of it, but never was able to handle all of the repairs. Also, remember the standard sized poodles he always had. His waiting room had dark prown leather seats that were perhaps the most uncomfortable seats in the world! Thanks for the feedback!! Keep reading!
      Jim Volk
      The Duquesne Hunky

  12. Mike Andrejcak says:

    I can remember that station. It was torn down to make room for the Post Office.

    • Jim says:

      Mike,

      As Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” The new post office never materialize and the post office across from Holy Name School is still in use today. My father’s business site is now a parking lot and has been since his garage was torn down.

  13. Megan says:

    I loved this story, Dad. I miss Pap a lot.

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