The Oil Company

I saw dad run a vacuum one time. I was about 4 years old. Huge red thing behind the counter at Suburban Rentals. Not the housekeeping type. 

Dad worked sales for Suburban Rentals then bought out several of their business lines, like Campbell Hausfield Compressors, Schaefer Oil, SAIT abrasives and New England Diamond, forming John King Sales Company while Suburban transitioned into insulation manufacture and scabble  contracts.  He bought a Ford Maverick and took out the back seat turning it into a mobile office with the cutting blades lined up where the seat had been. 

He excelled. He got a private label for the diamond blades, with his distinct JKS logo. He began selling Emglo Compressors and rented a warehouse in Orchard Hills Shopping Center. 

I remember playing around the warehouse. Grandpap Maurice Martin had a used forklift business called Valley Forklift with a young employee Russ Neff. Grandpap would get a clunker, Russ would fix it and paint it up. I was there one day when a freshly refurbished Yale was parked. Grandpap and Grandmother lived right up a steep bank at the top of the hill. He took me up there and gave me a bowl of ice cream. He ate his with a table spoon, flipping it upside down when he put it in his mouth.

We went back to the bright yellow Yale. He produced a roll of green tape and cut it with his little pocket knife. Then he made a perfect, double pin stripe down the side. “That’ll make it go.” He chuckled. For a few more years I assumed cars with pinstripes somehow went faster. 

Neighbor, and church friend Danny Martin would be around. He was a couple years older but we’d play on the forklifts and stacks of news paper. Folks brought their old papers there for the cash and his dad turned them into insulation. Danny somehow got us Mountain Dews out of the machine one day and I’ve never turned one down since. The Dew was friggin delicious. 

One night dad came home especially excited. I knew something was up but I had no idea what a batch was so we piled in the car and went to see it. It was simply ten brown barrels. Magnum Moly, Stenciled on them. You’d have thought he invented something. 

Back home the Garden Spot Lovells Nursery was moving out of our barn. When it was all cleaned out Mom and Aunt Lois and some other ladies had a big yard sale. Mom got the biggest kick out of someone making a big sign that read YARD SARD. Grandpap Martin gave me a big box of those rubber coin purses that had advertisements on them. 

Someone helped me make my sign. 25 c each or 3 for $1. 

I sat there and waited for a sale. Neighbor lady Melinda came by. “You’re getting fat.” She laughed and told me I was cute but that she wasn’t fat, she had a baby in her belly. I didn’t fall for that silliness. 

Then Danny’s mother Martha Martin came to my display. She read the sign. “Three for a dollar? That’s a rip off.” she said. And bought three. So did every single person that stopped by. 

We had a Fellowship Meal in the barn after that. Back in the day our church would do that for the anyhow sometimes. Just come together and eat for the fellowship. One clear memory I have of this event was Grandma Dan, Maurice’s mother, in our kitchen with a milk can filling it with water from the sink sprayer and dumping in huge chunks of ice frozen in those old square white Tupperware freezer boxes with colored lids. I discovered that her dress had two “fronts” so I did what a boy must do and ducked behind the front piece and stood in the mysterious and wonderful little tent. She pulled her apron off me and said “Dear child.” I think that meant “whose brat?” But she didn’t talk like that. 

Dad had been so successful at selling oil that Sheaffer flew him to St. Louis to tour their factory. He looked at the barrels of additives and chemicals, went home and called those companies. Sun Oil Company sold him a few thousand gallons of base oil and he made his first batch. 

Soon he was building his factory in the barn that had just been a nursery and a dining hall. He put a tall tank on a platform scale. It was so tall it went into the hay mow where he put up a chain hoist on a rail. Barrels of additives were hoisted through the hay hole one at a time, then tipped and poured into the top of the tank. A big motor turned a paddle and pumps circulated from top to bottom. You’d keep an eye on the scale dual through a hole then run and bung the barrel. 

Larry Lesher and “Buss” Small worked the shop while he went down the road on sales. He had “Cash and Carry” Wednesday’s, he’d stay in and meet his customers on site. And be home in good time for Prayer Meeting. 

Things kept growing. Mom was tied down full time as receptionist, book keeper and secretary. They had the office in our house, and it got crowded when the hired Pat Small to do the invoicing. Lee Chaney became local industrial salesman and never ceased to annoy mom by selling barrels of stuff we didn’t carry, like a barrel of brake fluid. 

Dad had adopted Sun Oil Co colors for his barrels. Blue sides, ” Taxi cab Yellow ” tops and red lettering. The lettering was stenciled so while you filled the barrels you’d stencil the Logo with red ink, then the Product Name in big letters and the specs in small black letters. 

Stencils were fun to make on these big iron stampers with a wheel to select the letter and a big lever to hang off of to punch it. 

Then you’d rubber stamp the batch number by the bung and seal the barrel with another big tool that crimped the metal seal tightly on the bung. 

When we were little, Janet and I helped by filling quart containers. She’d take a glue stick and fasten the paper label around the round bottles and I’d put on the lids. Later dad built a clever machine that used a pair of hydraulic cylinders. Compressed air drove the cylinders back and fourth while drawing in exactly one quart one way while pushing out the other side. This was tedious work. 

We refurbished our own barells. Had a paint shop with a huge slow guy named Jeff up there in the wagon shed wire brushing and painting these barrels. He’d be completely green by the end of the day. Hop on his moped and go home.  The guys told him it was lunch time or quitting time by throwing a rock at the shed. 

Things got busy. More tanks, rainwater separator, contracting a company in Baltimore to do the barrels by the truckload. Dad took the wagon shed and built an office. I began helping him by filing. You learn a lot filing. A whole lot. 

Guy named Robert Jones, an old school friend of dad’s brought his family to visit. We went around looking for houses and they moved down from Juniata County. Renita, Elvin, and Bruce. Robert became the Book Keeper and we moved into computerized accounting, invoicing, etc. Previously we’d only used them for spread sheets and mailing lists. Robert’s wife did mom’s sewing, they took over the bottling and I got in charge of mailing. 

We had a network of distributors, mainly Mennonites in adjacent states. Uncle Elwood King, his brother in law Earl Hege, and John Weaver in Juniata County Pa, Mark Shank in Rockingham County, were a few early ones. 

In January, 1990 the barn and the shed burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Janet was probably up reading and noticed the fire about the same time a passerby knocked on the door. It was a bitter cold night. Water froze on the ground and one fireman was hurt, but the fire got so big that five hundred feet away the paint on the house blistered. 

The next morning we started cleaning up. Grandpap secured a permit for a temporary building and thanks to the labor of our many Mennonite friends and our neighbors, two weeks later we made our first batch of oil in our temporary shed. 

That summer the church built a new building for us. Folks came from all over to work a day. Abe Shirk laid the foundation, Grandpap bought a crane, Dale Dueck was GC. I spent some days helping on the building and nights making oil. 1990 turned out to be the biggest sales year yet, for King Oil. We put up first steel on July 4th and began using the warehouse August 8th and offices soon after. It took a couple of months to run all the pipes and install the tanks to begin manufacturing. The first week of manufacturing I was taking a skid of oil from the factory side to the warehouse side- so quick and efficient to have it all on one level and adjacent, when I caught the fire wall with the fork lift mast and pulled it about halfway down. Dad’s office was on the second floor and he rushed out onto the stair landing. The only time I saw my dad wet his pants. It must have sounded like a horrible disaster, with one end of his office getting yanked off. 

Dad hired some more men to work in the factory and I went to the office, in addition to mailing I began producing spec sheets and the MSDS and preparing his presentations for sales meetings around the country. After getting out of school in 1991 at age 14 I went full time, taking over counter sales, wholesale orders and invoicing, inventory and all purchasing. 

Dad hired moms first foster dad, Daniel Martin to do agricultural sales in our area. Daniel was a smart man, and didn’t care for hard work much but this oil thing caught his groove. Looking back I think this is nearly impossible that a teenager was teaching a 55 year old man, but I knew more about machines, how they work, why they break and how to stop it than just about anybody and Daniel wanted to learn. 

Dad had hired a whole team of salesmen away from Texas Refinery and Bill Kloss, a retired Caterpillar Diesel engineer was their manager. That man pushed me to no end. Taught me some stuff about organization and just about everything there was to know about troubleshooting machine failures. Years later I was an engineer for a commercial high rise building. One day the bolts on a traction freight elevator all sheared off and the pulley dropped onto the shaft. The worm gear seized up. Using an EP oil in a worm gear cost over 1/2 million to repair. Otis Elevator still specs EP oil for their worm gears. They sure didn’t listen to me.

Daniel turned into an extremely successful salesman. He’d show up every evening at 5:45 with his truck and the orders for the next day. I was to pick them and load them for him. I hated him for it. By that time I  was past a ten hour day and he’d push it to 11 and make me late for supper. Rumor has it that my brothers cured him of this by demanding cash after closing time, but I don’t know if it’s true. 

I left the company in 96. After that I only know the high points. My mom became operations manager after me, and my little brother Matthew cut his teeth in her office, and honed his remarkable sales skills. My sister returned to do book keeping after Robert Jones moved away, and shortly after Mom passed away dad surprised us all by selling the business and staying on as a consultant. 

After Dad died, I eventually became responsible for real estate and other parts of dad’s business. By that time litigation was how things were getting done. The last direct communication I had with the business owners was this sentence. First, being pedantic does not mean child molester and second, when you pay your rent and debt service on time then you may presume to instruct me on how I address my elders. 

In 2016 the remainder of the factory and its assets were sold again, to another, local businessman. 


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