BY JENNIFER CROWLEY
The eye-catching one-and-a-half story cobblestone Tudor at 2659 Scottsville-Mumford Road has sadly sat unoccupied for the past ten years. Once a bustling gas station built in the heyday of cottage-style service stations, the property that boasts a distinct façade, nice location between Scottsville and Caledonia, and sizable lot on the banks of the Oakta, struggled to find a buyer. But that changed in January 2018 when Russell and Deborah Free purchased the building in order to live out Russell’s dream of owning and running a unique convenient store. Or rather, a mercantile.
“Free Style Mercantile. Because it’s more than a convenient store and more than a deli. We are harkening back to the days of the general store. The name is a play on our last name but also speaks to our desire to have eclectic offerings,” according to Deborah.
The couple, who live in Pavilion, were familiar with the Wheatland property and when they were first ready to make a move and purchase the building, another buyer snapped it up. “I told Russell if it is meant to be, it will be. And sure enough, that sale fell through,” she offered. But acquiring the property was only the first step in an incredibly long journey.
“When we started work here, there was no electricity, no water, and no heat. There was barely any insulation. And because the property was vacant for so long, the zoning had converted to residential so we had to obtain a variance,” explained Deborah. For any experienced commercial property owner, the work facing the couple would be daunting. But add in the fact that Russell, a seasoned tree surgeon, and Deborah, an event planner, had never undertaken such a venture before, the last year has been nothing short of trial by fire.
But with an anticipated January 2019 opening, progress has been swift over the past weeks. The large main counter, made of mahogany auditorium doors, has been installed and is ready for varnish. The kitchen equipment is in place and a cooler room which will one day sell beer is nice and chilly. The interesting stone flooring is thought to be original; the stones likely came from Oatka Creek. When the shop opens, it will offer take-out comfort food along with many other items, some expected (coffee), others unique (hardware).
A Piece of History
The building the Frees have been tirelessly renovating with the help of talented friends is historically significant given its “cottage” style architecture. These days there is hardly much to gas station design and there is little to differentiate brands by with the exception of price and convenience store offerings. But back in the early-to-mid twentieth century, there was concerted effort to build service stations in such a way that they were organic to their surroundings (often residential) and offered a pleasing customer experience.
Though gas stations are plentiful in the 21st century, one must appreciate that at the turn of the 20th century, the number of cars on the road could be measured in the thousands. At that time, there were no gas stations. In fact, there were no gas pumps. Those wealthy enough to have a car had to fuel it using a bucket and a gas barrel; these were often found at general stores, hardware stores, or even drugstores. It only took five years for an enterprising inventor to develop a pump to transfer gas from the barrel to the automobile’s tank. By 1910, only ten years later, there were a half-million cars on American roads – all in need of refueling.
In 1911 when the Standard Oil monopoly was broken up, service stations proliferated and competition for sales was fierce. By 1929, there were more than 120,000 filling stations with nearly $1.8 billion in sales. This “drive-in” gas station movement helped pave the way for the explosive growth of the American automobile industry.
Longtime area residents know the site of Free Style Mercantile as Phillips Service Station, a functional gas station and two-bay repair shop that operated for several decades until it closed in the late 2000s. However the building was originally constructed in 1933. Owner Henry Clark opened it as a Kendall Service Station presumably because the gas was supplied by the Kendall Refining Company. The company, formed as a refiner of lubricants in 1881, entered the gasoline market in 1922 with a significant presence in Pennsylvania and New York.
For Henry Clark, the Route 383 location of his venture was prime. As car ownership increased, so did the desire to go out for a drive as a hobby, particularly for those living in the city of Rochester. Route 383 would carry motorists directly from Exchange Boulevard out to Wheatland. On the 19-mile drive passengers would take in sights such as the Genesee River and a variety of fields. Much like those on a Sunday drive stopping at the station to fuel up, it wouldn’t be surprising for Free Style to become a stop for families visiting the nearby Genesee Country Village & Museum.
With the Free Style Mercantile slated to open soon, interest in the business has been intense. Many appreciate that the building is one of the last “cottage” style stations left standing in Monroe County. Others are eager for the fresh coffee, breakfast sandwiches, soups and pastries that the Frees will be serving along with various other goods and sundries ranging from jewelry and pottery to office supplies and hopefully, a modern-day version of penny candy. “Our vision is that this becomes a destination for folks much like it was a long time ago. We want to get to know our customers and provide them with a unique shopping and meal experience.”
Free Style Mercantile will open later this month. A Facebook page is under construction and will provide information about the shop’s hours and offerings.