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A Lincoln Highway Icon Dies

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
Salena Zito

BEDFORD, Pennsylvania -- Two weeks ago, Jack Dunkle was sitting with his best friend, Bob Barnes, at his auto parts store along U.S. 30. Barnes was telling a story to his friend of over 40 years. Dunkle looked pale, but he waved Barnes off when asked if he needed anything.


"A little bit later, as Jack started to leave, he turned and paused for a moment at the threshold of the shop door, looked over his shoulder, and said to me, 'I do need something, but it is not anything anyone, including you, can give me, and that is time,'" recalled Barnes, 70, who chokes up over the memory.

It was the last time he saw Dunkle alive. The 76-year-old died last week. Those who didn't read the obituary in the Bedford Gazette found out soon enough when they made the bend along the old Lincoln Highway and saw that the iconic Gulf service station -- the last original decorative terra cotta Gulf gas station in the country -- was closed.

"NO GASOLINE" signs were hand-scrawled and taped on to the two ancient pumps where his wife Susan would come out with a broad smile and pump your gas, check your tires and wipe your windshield down when you pulled into the station; taped up across the big bay window was another sign left by Barnes that read: "Jack, you were simply GREAT will miss you FOREVER, Bob Barnes."

Jack Dunkle, like his father Dick before him, didn't just own a gas station. He was the heart of the community. It is impossible to separate him from the beloved art deco structure built by the Gulf Oil Corporation in 1933 as the premiere service station between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh along the nation's first coast-to-coast highway.


In the early days of the Lincoln Highway, gas and mechanical repairs were hard to find along the highway that stretched from Times Square in New York City to California. Dunkle's, with its ideal location 170 miles from Philadelphia and 100 from Pittsburgh, was a must-stop for anyone who hit the road from the East Coast until the turnpike was built in the 1940s.

The ornate design was Americana at its finest. So was the hard work of the family that has been serving travelers for nearly a century: Even today's younger generation in this small town appreciated what they stood for and how they took care of the community.

Spencer Ebersole, 19, loved going to the Dunkle station. "They were such great examples of hard work, and really caring about the people in the community. As soon as you pulled up, Mrs. Dunkle was out there checking my tires, making sure I was safe," he said.

"Before I drove, I would go in and buy my soft drinks from their old soda fountain; it was a dollar cheaper than buying it out of a plastic bottle and tasted a lot better," Ebersole said.

Bette Slayton, president of the Bedford County Development Association, said for nearly a century, Dunkle's Gulf has been a visitor attraction in Bedford County. "It is currently on the PA Bucket List, which is compiled by the state's premiere travel photographers," she said.


For years, television and print media have featured Dunkle's as part of the history of the Lincoln Highway. Visitors have come to fill up, ask for directions and snap many photos over the past nine decades. In fact, every book ever written about the Lincoln Highway seems to feature a photograph and a brief history of the service station. As I stood in front of it, over a dozen cars stopped to read the memorial and take a photo. Some expressed their dismay about what will happen to the building next.

"Dunkle's Gulf has long been an important part of our history," Slayton said. "It has drawn national attention to downtown Bedford with its deeply rooted history, very cool art deco facility and high-quality service."

Nothing lasts forever -- in particular, family businesses. The rarity of a family business going into a third generation is real; kids move away and have other aspirations, and times change.

It is rare to find a place like Dunkle's so deeply committed to its community, and it is rare to find people like Jack and Susan Dunkle, who well into their 70s were committed to working as hard as they did in their 30s -- who kept prices down, took care of customers who were on hard times and never said a word about it.

"They could have easily changed from the old station, with all of the limitations it had in terms of expansion and being able to make money selling snacks or more," said Barnes. "But they knew that what their building looked like mattered to the community. It was and remains part of our identity."


No one knows right now what will happen with the iconic building that for generations was that place -- where people knew they would go and be greeted with a smile, that made sure their tires were at the right level, that their engines sounded good. They valued not just the preservation of a building but the preservation of being a good member of the community.

"What they stood for was something I looked up to," Ebersole said. "I cannot imagine not seeing that station serving travelers again. I hope someone steps up and continues what the Dunkles left us: a sense of place."

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