The advent of the national road system in 1926 ushered in a golden age for mom-and-pop entrepreneurs. For Henry Soulsby of Mount Olive, it happened just in time. Mr. Soulsby followed his Irish immigrant father into mining, but in the mid-1920s, an injury forced him above ground. Understanding that a national highway would soon pass through Mount Olive, he invested most of his life savings in two lots at the corner of 1st Street, now called Old Route 66. With the balance, he built an automotive service station.
The Soulsby Station is an excellent example of a house with a canopy form. By the time Mr. Soulsby built his station in 1926, the leading oil companies had been hiring architects to design stations that would blend well with neighborhoods to minimize local opposition to the crudeness often associated with gas stations. Mr. Soulsby designed the building himself, considering these trends and blending well with the surrounding area.
Although the Great Depression soon began, the station thrived. America was broke, but it was still traveling. As Will Rogers would say, "We might be the first nation to drive to the poorhouse in an automobile."
When Henry Soulsby retired, his children Russell and Ola Soulsby took over the station, a partnership that would endure until Ola died in 1996. Each was as adept as the other at pumping gas, checking the oil, and looking under the hood or chassis to detect and fix problems. Russell always had an eye for technology. During World War II, he was a communications technician in the Pacific theater. He turned his experience into a radio and television repair business shortly after coming home. He used the antenna on the station's roof to test his work.
Route 66 was a great agent of progress and development, but its success helped spell its doom. In the late 1950s, Interstate 55 began supplanting it in Illinois, and the Soulsby Station ended up a mile from the new thoroughfare in Mount Olive. In 1991, the Soulsby Station stopped pumping gas but continued to check oil, sell soda pop ("pop" in northern Illinois), and greet the ever-growing legion of Route 66 tourists. Sending everyone off with a wink and a wave, Russell and Ola closed the doors for good in 1993 and sold the station in 1997 to a neighbor, Mike Dragovich. When Russell Soulsby died in 1999, his funeral procession took him under the canopy one last time; this time, it was his friends' turn to wink and wave.
The current owner, Mr. Dragovich, and the Soulsby Preservation Society began preservation efforts in 2003, removing vinyl siding, restoring the original doors and windows, and repainting the exterior. In 2004, the National Park Service provided grant support for restoration efforts. Today, the station looks essentially the same as it did during its post-World War II heyday. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
People worldwide drive by to imagine what Old Route 66 would have been like in its heyday.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Photos Copyright © 2014, Neil Gale.