SWITZER, W.Va. — Claude Yeager is living proof that not all “dinosaurs” are extinct. The longtime Switzer resident turned 85-years-young this past July 4th and one could say with at least a certain degree of accuracy that America celebrated his birthday at that time; or at least, should have since he is “one of a kind.” Unlike too many of today’s generation, Claude is still willing to work and impressively does so at his Yeager’s Service Center location right next door to his home.
Not only is the station the oldest known full service gasoline station in West Virginia, it possibly could be the oldest full service filling station in the country, and most certainly is the oldest station that is physically operated by the oldest owner.
While there are those persons who can remember when a full service operation meant never having to get out of one’s automobile when needing gasoline, oil or just about anything else, it certainly is realized that those days are gone. No more getting your windshield cleaned for free each time you need fuel. And, the air needed for a low tire is no longer free either — that is unless you happen to be at Claude Yeager’s place.
He married his wife Clella in 1949 and opened his station June 3, 1963. The couple raised three children: Gary, who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona, Terry, who is deceased, and Cindy Stapleton. Their grandchildren include Justin and Steven Stapleton, and Adam, Erin and Katie Yeager, she being Gary’s daughter. The children were always visible around the family station while they were growing up and one grandchild even now helps out his grandpa during summer months when home from college. From all indications, the Yeager’s appear mighty proud of their clan.
There are newspaper clippings and other memorabilia on a bulletin board inside his business with photos and other items reflecting family, friends and the past. It turns out that Claude Yeager, who actually was born in Lincoln County, is a second cousin to Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, who is internationally known as the first person to break the sound barrier in 1947. Another notable second cousin also hailing from Lincoln County is Steve Yeager, who spent 14 years of his 15 seasons as a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1975 through 1985. He helped Dodgers teams win the World Series in 1974, ’77, ’78 and 1981.
“When I first opened up here, I sold gas for 29.9 cents a gallon and oil for 25 cents a quart,” Yeager said with his usual smile. “Pop was five cents. Everything sure has changed.”
The well-known fixture on Island Creek may not be considered stiff competition for places like Speedway and other more modernized fueling points, but Claude has his own regular customers and they get the “old time” treatment of yesteryear. For instance, many of his customers charge their expenditures, not with a credit card, but by simply saying: “Put it on my bill, Claude.”
“Some pay me every two weeks and some pay me every month,” he explained. “Most people are pretty good to pay.”
Although Yeager has been in the oil and gas business most of his life, since prior to opening his station he worked at Fuzzy’s Pure Oil at age 15 and later drove a Pure oil truck for then owner Litz McGuire, the truth is that Claude Yeager, by all accounts, could have been elected Sheriff of Logan County in the General Election of 1977. He lost to Vernon Dingess by just 666 votes even though Yeager was a republican candidate in a county that was predominantly democratically registered by a 9-1 ratio. It is possible Yeager would have won had it not been for illegal activities in two large precincts — Striker and Bulwark. Yeager did not receive a single vote in either precinct because his name was taped over. Two men were sentenced to prison for related election violations. However, the results of those precincts were counted. Ironically, in a similar situation in another Logan County election, Devil Anse Hatfield’s son, Tennis, was elected Sheriff on the republican ticket in 1926, when after appeals were made, it was determined that two precincts had to be thrown out because of serious irregularities that involved Logan Sheriff Don Chafin. All votes cast in Striker and Mud Fork were thrown out; therefore, the entire republican ticket, which included Hatfield, was placed in office even though the democratic office holders had served at their jobs for 18 months after originally being declared the victors.
“We all gathered in the basement of the Aracoma Hotel and listened to the returns,” Claude recalled. Ralph Grimmett let me down in the Man area, and I let him know about it that night at the hotel. “Dingess kind of rode in on the coat tails of Jay Rockefeller that year.”
Yeager, who said he has been a registered democrat for the past 10 years because “there just haven’t been many republicans on the ballot” has served twice on the Island Creek Executive Committee and once was a candidate for the Board of Education.
“Arch Moore was one of the best governors ever,” Yeager declared. “I could walk into his office and he would talk to me just about any time. ‘’ Yeager was appointed as a State ABCC Liquor Commissioner and worked about a year before his station “started going down” and he quit the state job.
Describing Obama as the worst President in his lifetime, Yeager studied a while before answering that he thought John F. Kennedy probably was the best President he had witnessed. “The Bush’s would be second,” he added. “I also liked Tom “Rose” Tomblin when he was in office and I think Earl Ray is doing a good job for Logan County.”
After pausing to place another MVI sticker on a customer’s vehicle, Yeager pointed to the metal bars that are on the outside of his station’s windows. “I’ve only been broken into one time, and that’s why I had to put the bars up. They never did get caught, but I about know who robbed me.”
The small station, which looks about the same way it did 30 years ago, suddenly becomes a busy place as one customer after another customer stops there for either fuel or a MVI sticker. It seems that Claude knows each by name as he no doubt has watched some of them grow up from childhood.
“I used to live upstairs here where I have an apartment and I used to come down at night to service my regular customers. “They’ve all passed away now. Back then, people didn’t forget about you when you were good to them,” he lamented.
A sign on the wall reads: “Chewing allowed. Spitting ain’t.” Yeager laughs as he describes his way of relaxing. “I like to put in a big chew of tobacco and set back in my recliner and watch Gunsmoke on tv,” he said. “Of course, if somebody needs something at the station, I’ll get up and get it for them.”
The station is open from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday thru Friday and from 8 a.m. until noon on Saturdays, but he’s thinking about closing on Saturdays. “The man upstairs has been good to me, but my doctor wants me to slow down so, I’ll probably start closing on Saturdays,” Yeager explained. “I had open heart surgery in 1999.”
Claude Yeager, who has long been a “constant” in his community, remembers when coal miners were working only “two or three days a week” and when gas shortages caused him to sell just three gallons of gas per customer.
“I remember when this hollow was full of gas stations. They said they were going to put ole’ Claude out of business, but I’m still here,” he said with a smile. “I like to fish, but you can’t fish 12 months out of a year, so I guess I’ll work as long as I can. Besides, most people that retire just sit around, get fat and die.”
Here are the facts: Claude Yeager doesn’t just sit around and he’s definitely not fat. As far as age goes, if you ask his neighbor, Bill Farley, he will tell you that the 85-year-old is a long way from being old. Farley, who recently celebrated his 101st birthday, tells his neighbor and longtime friend: “I’ve got shoes older than you.”
Claude, who has enjoyed a lifetime full of friends and family, just smiles and gets up to wait on another customer.