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A step back in Sohio time

Local service station-museum’s memorabilia brings retirees together for field trip

September 23, 2012
By DAVE GOSSETT - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

STEUBENVILLE - Tom Alexander felt right at home when he stepped inside the Sunset and Wilshire service station.

The former Youngstown area Sohio service station manager said walking into Barry Robb's Sohio museum and service station "made me feel like I was back in the old days. As soon as I saw all of the old Sohio stuff, you feel right at home here."

Alexander was one of a group of Sohio retirees who traveled to Steubenville for lunch and a step back in time at Robb's service station.

Article Photos

Barry Robb, owner of the Sunset and Wilshire Service Station, and retired Sohio employee Bob Vesco of Coshocton examine a can of Sohio gasoline dry cleaner. Vesco was one of several Sohio retirees to recently visit Robb’s museum and working service station.

Before he left for the drive back to Youngstown, Alexander was busy snapping photos of the Sohio oil cans stacked on a nearby shelf.

"This place is awesome in so many ways," Alexander said.

He can trace his Sohio roots back to 1946 when he first started working for Sohio at a service station.

Alexander spent six years with the company before returning to Sohio in 1959 until 1987.

"I was a service station manager at several locations in Youngstown during my career," he said.

The Sohio retirees from the Youngstown area normally meet three times a year for lunch and sharing memories.

But after Flo Rance's sister told her about the service station in Steubenville that closely resembled an old Sohio station, the group contacted Robb and made arrangements for a field trip to Steubenville.

"I worked at a Sohio station for three years pumping gas, changing oil and spark plugs and changing tires. Then I was moved to an office job. But I remember those days working at the gas station," Rance said.

"When we came here, I thought I was in heaven," Rance laughed.

"The guys here came out wearing their Sohio shirts and washed my windshield. That brought back a lot of memories when Sohio was known for its customer service," said Dolly Vrabel, who spent 25 years at different Sohio office jobs.

"I started working at a service station in 1943 where I spent 13 years," Josephine Sylvester said. "I did everything from pumping gas to patching tire inner tubes. But after 13 years, we had a manager come in who said women didn't belong in a service station, so I was moved to the Niles terminal. I worked for Sohio for 42 years total," Sylvester said.

It was an afternoon for stories, sharing memories and relaxing for the Sohio retirees who posed for photos in front of the Sohio gas pumps and examined the memorabilia Robb has collected over the years.

Robb and his employees pumped their last gallon of gasoline in January but continue servicing vehicles.

"I started collecting this stuff because I wanted to save part of the local Sohio service station history. I have been able to collect photos from the old Sohio stations. And I have been buying some of the Sohio signs and supplies on e-Bay. This has become a fun project for me as a way to remember the guys who made Sohio successful in this area. Several years ago, I had the crazy idea of restoring the station to its original Sohio colors. This station has had a good run in Steubenville, and I'm grateful to have been along for the ride," Robb said.

"I was a senior at Big Red in 1976 when I started working at a Sohio service station. That part-time job turned into a career for me. It was the only job I ever had. I have been lucky to have met some wonderful people during the past 35 years. I knew many of the Sohio station owners, and now most of them are gone," Robb said.

"Len Horton, Earl Cramblett, Sam Ferroni, Bill Ashbrook, Dick Blake, Wade Ringer, Ernie Davis, Bob Cline, Harry Poff and Gary Martin were all Sohio dealers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s who served their neighborhoods. Those are some of the men I want to honor with all of this. Sports teams have throwback jerseys. We have a throwback service station," according to Robb.

"I bought the service station with the idea in the back of my head to restore it some day to the Sohio colors that I grew up with in the 1970s and 1980s. A lot of people don't know the great history of Sohio that started in Ohio in the late 1800s," Robb said.

"I have been able to collect photos from the old Sohio stations. And I have been buying some of the Sohio signs and supplies on e-Bay. This has become a fun project for me as a way to remember the guys who made Sohio successful in this area," Robb said.

And Robb has been known to take day trips with his wife, Connie, spot an old Sohio gas station and make arrangements to buy another sign or anything still bearing the Sohio name.

Bob Vesco of Coshocton used to make regular stops at the station when he was a salary manager for Sohio.

"I started with Sohio in 1954. I became a dealer rep, and Steubenville was part of my territory. Walking into this station is unbelievable. The website about the station doesn't do it justice. I can't imagine the work Barry, his wife and his employees did to create this atmosphere. A lot of this stuff is what we used in our stations. We held the cans in our hands and threw them away. But Barry has found all of this and has it on display again," Vesco said.

"There aren't too many red, white and blue service stations any longer. I'm glad I came over to Steubenville for today. This place is mind-boggling. And I had a chance to visit with Earl Cramblett, who is an icon in the history of Sohio," Vesco said.

"You know what Sohio stands for don't you?" Cramblett asked as he examined a company light.

"Sold only here in Ohio," Cramblett said.

"This station brings back a lot of good memories of the Sohio dealerships in the Steubenville area. Some of the stuff Barry has found and brought to this station dates back to the 1930s and 1940s. I miss Sohio. It was a great company to work for," he added.

"My father was working in the blooming mill at Weirton Steel and was so angry with me for not taking a job in the mill. But I was so used to meeting people and helping people when I was delivering groceries that I really liked working at the service station. I was a public person, and I enjoyed the public," Cramblett said.

From those early days at the service station on Market Street, Cramblett became a Sohio employee who managed service stations at Third and South streets, Main Street in Wintersville, Fourth and Washington streets and finally on University Boulevard.

"I was also a manager for Sohio and was involved in training employees. When Sohio created the Boron service stations, I was involved in the training of the employees," Cramblett said.

He noted the biggest change he witnessed during his career came in the mid-1970s.

"That's when the gasoline shortage occurred, and we had to allocate customers just 10 gallons of gas at a time. We would usually pump gas in the mornings and try to line up service work in the afternoons. But that is when you saw the old-fashioned service stations change. People were so happy to get gas they weren't worried about the full service that was a standard of gas stations. That's when it all changed," remembered Cramblett.

"Sohio started selling Boron and at one point raised it a penny a gallon. There was a huge public outcry at the time," Cramblett recalled.

Robert Steak of Boardman started his 28-year career with Sohio as an assistant station manager.

"I did everything there. But our main goal was to keep the restrooms clean for the public. We cleaned those restroom every half hour. Then I became a fuel tanker truck driver. I can remember delivering gas to Stratton and Wellsville as part of my route," Steak said.

"Driving into the station parking area and walking into the station took me back immediately. As soon as I walked in here I felt like I had never left Sohio," Dick Bedio of Youngstown said.

"I started in Pennsylvania selling Boron while I was going to college. I kept working at the service stations in several training jobs while I was going to college and eventually took a management job with Sohio," he recalled.

Several of the Sohio retirees talked about items they had at home and asked Connie Robb if her husband would be interested.

"Believe me, if it is something from Sohio, Barry will be interested," Connie said.

"I didn't do all this for fame and fortune. I really just wanted to watch people's faces when they saw everything we have collected. My wife and guys put a lot of work and time into getting the station ready, and I appreciate everything they did," Robb said.

"This is like when I was a kid with a box of army soldiers. I would take them out and play with them and show them to other people and then put them away. So after today I will put everything away for awhile. But I enjoyed these folks coming here and reliving their memories, and I hope they enjoyed themselves. I'm looking forward to next year and will be inviting as many Sohio retirees here as I can find," Robb said.

(Gossett can be contacted at

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