Long before the advent of the impersonal cashier in a glass booth at the gas station there was a true auto service center at the corner of 18th and Market Streets in Camp Hill called Neidig’s Gulf Service. The station was run by Elwood Neidig and his colorful group of co workers. “Wood’s” was not just a place to get gas, it was much more, it was woven into the fabric of Camp Hill. It was a meeting place, a place to exchange stories, a place to get help when in need and you could get quality auto repairs there from people who cared about doing a good job. I had the good fortune of getting a job there in the early seventies. It was somewhat similar to joining the cast of Barney Miller or Cheers.
Elwood was a man’s man in every sense of the word. He was no one you would ever mess with but he also had a heart of gold hidden beneath his tough exterior. He was a gnarly looking with salt and pepper hair, grease stained hands that would never again be clean, scarred from burns and hundreds of slipped wrenches. He was ever present with his blue service station pants and his company issue light blue Gulf logo shirt with “Wood” sewn into it. His co workers included Fish, Steve, “Gusty” (Dean Mantis), Injun’ Jim Moore, Lil’ Wood, Donnie Stewart and future police officer Dave Pepperman to name a few. Elwood was the boss, he enjoyed being the boss and whatever orders he gave, we followed. He loved football and was a huge fan of Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore colts. He could debate football for hours with no less than three or four hundred expletives thrown in for color.
When a cold spell would hit, the phone would start ringing as cars all over Camp Hill would need a jump start. Wood would jump into his truck and drive all over town starting cars for free or for just a cup of coffee. Everyone would remember this and would be sure to get their gas at Elwood’s even though it cost a few cents more than the new Hess down in Lemoyne, but at Neidig’s we would always wash your windows, check your oil and even put air in your tires if you wished. Elwood would love to return to the station and wow his audience with his trumped up stories of the women he had helped that day answering the door in their nighties or less. No one could spin a fantasy like Elwood. He was full of it as far as we knew but who really knows for sure.
The station was also favorite stop for the Camp Hill police force because Elwood always had a pot of coffee on and there were usually some doughnuts to enjoy with the latest issue of Guns and Ammo or….Playboy. The station also offered a good vantage point to keep an eye on speeders coming into Camp Hill from Lemoyne. We could always be counted on to put the snow tires on the police cars within in a few minutes notice of an impending storm. The police cars would roll in and we would get the tires on as fast as we could. Wood had great respect and rapport with the police and fire departments, but he would also protect his co-workers from prosecution when needed. The police had a particular distain for our new found freedom, riding mini bikes. I once witnessed Wood’s compassion when I saw Dean Mantis on his mini bike flying down North 17th and across Market Street right into Wood’s lot. Elwood was holding the garage door up and Dean flew right into the garage and Wood quickly shut the overhead door. Seconds later the C.H. police car came roaring into the lot looking for Dean only to have Elwood give them the "I didn’t see anything shrug" while Dean hid the mini bike in the garage until the cops left. How Wood loved to retell that story.
Neidig’s was the place to work on your car and keep them washed and waxed before heading over to cruise “the circuit”. Many Friday nights you could drive by and see Dean aka Smoky Burnout, out there waxing his black Camaro, easily the hottest car in town. Palanzo’s Cuda, Lipscombs’s mustang or my ‘73 Camaro Rally Sport might be out there. The Martson, Brandt, Sajer, Over gang would drop by from North 17th and the Quinns, Zeiglers, Tammy Nadeau, Chrenciks or Hines’ would drop by from South 18th to get a soda from one of the few soda vending machines in the area. The slight incline and smooth surface on Market Street made it the perfect spot for lighting up our tires to show off for our friends but no one could do it like Dean. Dean could smoke them up through first and second gears well up the hill to South 17th and the plume of burning rubber would envelope the parking lot and the cheering fans.
One of my favorite stories had to do with how Elwood would calculate a bill. When a person takes a car to a garage they always expect the worst. Elwood never took advantage of anyone. He would mark his parts up a small percentage and charge a reasonable rate for labor. Nothing even close to the price gouging that goes on now. When a customer would call in to see if his car was done and how much it cost, Elwood had a particular trick he loved to pull. He would lay the phone on the desk with the mouthpiece close to his big old calculator and just crank and crank that calculator like he was figuring out a huge bill. This would go on for a few minutes as the customer listened to the calculator cranking away over the phone. Wood would sit there smiling as he hit random buttons to make as much noise as possible. Then he would pick up the phone and say “Forty Bucks” or some other round number that was usually lower than anything the customer would anticipate.
These are just some of the stories from one small corner in Camp Hill and there are many other corners and memorable spots but I will always remember Elwood Neidig’s Gulf Service as the place where friends met in a much simpler and happier time. Elwood is gone now and so is his station but he touched many people and we all remember him fondly.
Check out pictures of the man himself at the Elwood Gallery.
Editor’s note: I have argued with Mr. Hawbecker that the Green Ghost, a ’72 Torino, should figure in the list of hottest cars...although it never needed repairing at the Gulf Station.
Check out Andy’s other motor madness, The Jump.
A note of appreciation: I wanted to thank Mr. Hawbecker for publishing such a nice personal anecdote about my grandfather, Elwood Neidig. I've been sending links to the story to everyone who knew him. So far everyone has had a good laugh. We've really enjoyed reading it. I wanted to extend my appreciation and gratitude to Mr. Hawbecker for keeping my grandfather's memory alive by sharing stories like this with others. Thank you so much! -- Whitney Ivanoff