Kermit Dixon recalls that when he opened his first gas station on Lexington’s Southland Drive in 1973 there were 11 full-serve filling stations on the street.
Now, 45 years later, all 11 have vanished. In their wake are three one modern stations on the street selling pump-it-yourself gas, plus drinks and snacks from attached mini markets, but doing no car repair.
Only Dixon’s Service Center at 220 Southland Drive still carries on in the old way, with an attendant to fill your tank and wipe the windshield, and a mechanic who’ll fix a flat or even rebuild your engine if needed.
Indeed, Kermit Dixon maintains that his is the last full-service gas station, not just on Southland Drive, but in the entire city of Lexington.
“I know I’m the last,” he said. “A few years ago, three of us were still doing full-service: the BP in Lansdowne; Duff’s Ashland at New Circle and North Broadway; and me. Duff’s and the BP both closed, and that leaves only me. I’m the last.”
He’s right, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, whose inspectors check every gas dispenser in the state to ensure they meet standards. In response to an inquiry, agriculture spokesman Sean Southard confirmed that department inspectors are unaware of any full-serve station still operating in Lexington other than Dixon’s.
Fact is, gas stations have been disappearing for some time now, like other icons of American culture — soda fountains, video stores, small farms. Dixon says there’s one traditional station left in Versailles. Nicholasville supposedly has one, but Dixon said he doesn’t know its address.
“They’re like dinosaurs, you can’t hardly find one anymore,” he said.
But Dixon’s coterie of loyal customers say they’re just glad there’s still one dinosaur in Lexington.
“I don’t know what I’d do if he ever closed,” says retired Lexington radio and TV personality Sue Wylie, a Dixon’s regular.
Wylie used to buy gas at the Lansdowne BP, but when it closed she moved to Dixon’s and has been there ever since. She likes the convenience of having an attendant gas up her car, and is happy to drive farther and pay the extra dime per gallon Dixon charges for full-serve.
“If you pump it yourself, you freeze in the winter or get soaked when it rains,” Wylie said. “I tell people I don’t do my own hair; I don’t drill my own teeth; and I don’t pump my own gas. It’s worth it to me.”
Another regular, William “Mike” Bronston, runs his own delivery service and says Dixon has been maintaining his vehicles “for 40 years give or take.”
“I drive 3,000 miles a week, so service is important,” Bronston said. “And Kermit is the only guy I know of who’ll still pump your gas, wash your windshield and check your tires. You can’t find that anymore.”
Estimates vary, but it is said that America had more than about 202,800 gas stations in 1994. The number was down to around 150,000 by 2015. Today’s typical station is a convenience store with a line of self-serve pumps out front, but no car repair function.
Many factors have fueled the station decline, from changing American driving habits to the arrival of electric and hybrid cars, and competition from big retailers like Walmart and Costco. Even more competition may be coming soon from new services that will literally take gas to your home and fill up your car.
But visiting Dixon’s station is still like a leisurely Sunday drive into the past.
Inside the station, there’s usually a car or two up on the racks for service or repairs. Mechanic Benji Riddell says he handles everything from oil changes to recently replacing a turbocharger on an SUV whose owner forgot to change the oil. He even rebuilt the engine in a classic ‘57 Ford Thunderbird not long ago.
Air hoses trail across the parking lot outside, triggering an alarm to signal the arrival of a customer whenever a car rolls in. There’s also a free air hose anyone can use to pump up a low tire, just like stations used to have. Dixon takes pride in offering hard-to-find services including lawn mower repair and truck rental.
“A lady pulled in the other day just wanting her tires checked, and we took care of it,” he said. “She’d been to a half-dozen places and couldn’t find anyone to put air in her tires.
“You go to a self-serve station and they may have a low-pressure air machine where you have to put in a dollar for enough air to fill maybe two tires. But they don’t have anybody to check your tires. They don’t know how to check tires.”
He has made one concession, cutting down to just one full-service pump to go with his nine self-serve pumps. But a core of 20 or customers still us full-serve regularly, he said.
Today, more than 122,500 convenience stores nationwide sell gasoline, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. Association spokesman Jeff Lenard says 2,207 Kentucky convenience stores now sell gas, representing about 80 percent of all the state’s gasoline outlets.
Dixon, 71, says he understands the forces behind such changes, but still finds it a sad commentary on a business in which he’s spent his working life.
A Georgetown native, he was only 26 when he opened his first station at 307 Southland Drive. He moved up the street to his current location in 1990 and has been there ever since. That’s 45 years on one street.
But how much longer he’ll be there is unclear. In recent years, Dixon has struggled with a bad back, heart problems and other ailments. He suffered a stroke this summer but returned work just days later.
He admits, however, that he’d sell the business if someone came along and offered the right price.
“The last few years have been pretty tough,” he said. “But I’m glad I’ve been able to keep it up this long. I haven’t made a lot of money, but I’ve made a living. And I’ve made a lot of friends.”