By CARL E. FEATHER
There was a time locals gave directions to places in downtown Ashtabula using the Five Points' "flying saucer gas station" as a reference point. Even the Presbytery of the Western Reserve used it to help seekers find their way to the doors of First Presbyterian Church on Park Avenue.
These days, a Walgreen's Pharmacy stands where the distinctive gas station and its three fueling islands landed 40 years ago. The station closed in the 1990s, was dismantled and donated to the Western Reserve Historical Society. The society, which at the time was planning to build a transportation museum on the Cleveland lakefront, was to use the saucer as the centerpiece of an exhibit about motoring during the 1950s.
Or so the story goes.
Becky McCrone knows better. When she was a waitress at the Saybrook Family Restaurant, she'd often hear the question "Where's the flying saucer gas station?" And McCrone told her patrons they didn't have to go Cleveland to see it; the metal cylinder that housed the office and rest rooms stands in a field a short distance off North Bend Road. Sections of the saucer's frames are stored there, as well.
Raymond Keyes, who built the saucer at Five Points in 1966, confirms that these sections of the local landmark did end up at his storage area. But the rest of the saucer, which was disassembled by his son, went to a warehouse in the Cleveland area, where it was awaiting a glorious resurrection in the new museum.
But Rita Keuber, director of marketing and communications for the WRHS, says that isn't going to happen. Indeed, the portion of the saucer entrusted to the museum has been scrapped, along with the museum it was to be a part of.
"It doesn't exist any longer," said Keuber of the saucer parts. "It's a dreadful calamity to a history museum. We feel very badly about this."
Keuber says a string of events led to the sad fate. First, the disassembly job was done improperly, making it impossible to reassemble the saucer using the material supplied. She said historical structures are usually dismantled in large sections, but the saucer was broken down into a meaningless pile of parts.
Further, these materials were stored outside rather than in a warehouse. Exposed to the elements, the wood rotted quickly.
"We were basically storing a pile of scrap wood," Keuber says. "No one feels the pain of that more than a historical society."
And then there was the demise of the proposed museum itself. The ambitious $63-million project crashed for want of funding shortly after the saucer was donated. Artifacts collected for the project fell between the cracks of museum oversight.
"This artifact and others that were accessioned for the project were for (the lakefront museum) and not the Western Reserve Historical Society," Keuber says. "There were very few files on them as they came through the warehouse and a different crew was handling ... these properties."
Even if the museum had been built, the original saucer wouldn't have appeared in it, says Keuber. Rather, the Ashtabula property would have been used as a model for a reconstruction.
Keuber says the station's fate is embarrassing to a history museum, but reminds readers that every donation to the collection is a financial liability.
"It costs us money to collect and preserve," she says.
One of a kind
Plans for the museum called for the station or a replica of it to act as the entrance to exhibits about motoring in the 1950s, an era when families hit the highways in record numbers and the nation was fascinated with the flying saucer phenomenon.
Ironically, Keyes' station opened almost a decade after that golden era ended, July 6, 1966. It was a Fleet Wing station that offered just the basics: gas pumps and rest rooms. Keyes staffed the station with women attendants, a practice he continued throughout most of the station's history, except during the higher-risk late-night hours.
According to a Star Beacon article, the first employees were Suzanne Scott, Sheila McCain, Lynn Gran, Laura DeHelian and Sue Rosebaugh.
Keyes says he was inspired to go with the saucer motif as a result of serving in the Navy during World War II. He says he was on a crew that scrambled on a report of a saucer sighting. Keyes says he never saw a saucer himself, but was fascinated by them.
"I kind of believe in flying saucers," he says.
Keyes was disappointed to learn that his saucer won't be preserved in a museum. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "I thought I'd found a good home for that."
He says the portions that remain on his North Bend Road property will be discarded, as well. McCrone, who lives near the lot and is concerned children will play around it and get injured, calls the tower "an eyesore."
"Look at it, it's disgusting," she said of the station remains.