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John Crawford Butane Gas Company: A Pioneer in Starkville

May 14, 2011

For Starkville Daily News

We often hear older folks talk about remembering the “good old days,” when things were simpler and less expensive. On the other hand, many people remember the good old days with far less fondness, since for them they were a time of hardships such as cutting and carrying wood into the house on a cold day for heat or cooking on the old, wood stove. The advent of propane gas was a welcomed event which put an end to these trials.
John Crawford moved to Starkville in 1956, when he leased the building located on Main St. from Marmaduke & Mitchell for his butane gas business. He had two 6,000-gallon storage tanks located at the crossroads and two on Highway 12 by the railroad spur. His trucks were equipped with two-way radios. To operate the radios, he had to have a 75-ft. tall FCC tower built at his Hwy. 12 property. He ran into some regulations preventing the tower’s construction at first because of the airport. However, it was later approved.
Crawford’s Butane Gas Company was the only one in Starkville in 1956. Today, there are three or more propane gas companies here and more who have clients here.
Jim Boy Eckford had previously leased it. Crawford’s grandfather had a propane business in the Delta in1956. He had a child who was a traveling salesman and, while in Starkville, noticed the propane gas business for sale. John Crawford’s dad was an M.D. and wanted him to become a doctor, so Mr. Crawford went to Ole Miss, majoring in chemistry to fulfill his father’s wish. Instead, he went into the propane gas business.
The college and churches were some of his largest customers.
Timing meant success. Propane gas was just coming on the market. Rural homes were converting from wood and coal to propane. Most days, Crawford’s crew put in two to three propane gas systems a day. Mr. Crawford remembers Harold McKenzie, recently deceased, and Cedric Brook as excellent crewmembers. Crawford had two gas trucks and one pickup truck.  Their work was seven days a week, and their hours were 5 a.m.-11 p.m. Today, most businesses open at 8 a.m. and close at 5 p.m.
Crawford said, “The biggest problem I had when I moved to Starkville was finding the roads and where people lived.” Maps were not readily available then. When Crawford purchased the business, Jim Boy Eckford kept the accounts receivable. Crawford made a deal with Eckford to teach him about the accounting system, which was Greek to him since he had a chemistry degree.
Crawford remembers the Borden plant as a company which utilized propane gas. In the winter months when the temperature would be extremely cold, the company converted their burners to oil and then propane.
Since propane gas users were mostly in rural areas, much of Crawford’s business was in the surrounding areas of Sturgis, Mathiston, Longview, and Phoebe, as well as Webster and Clay Counties.
Mr. Crawford told of a tragedy in his business which happened in Starkville. He asked, “Do you notice anything unusual about my face?” I told him that I noticed his nose was red.  He said, “That’s from an accident that occurred at a home located next to the old Lakeside Golf Club.”  Bob Moulder was renting a house from E. W. Garrison. Mrs. Moulder had just had a baby, and it was freezing cold.  Moulder called Crawford to come and fill his propane tank.  When Crawford began filling the tank, he noticed a problem with the pipelines going to the house and ran into the house to safeguard the family. He noticed the stove was on with its door open to provide warmth.  The baby was in a bassinet right in front of the stove. The explosion was so great that it blew the door and two windows out of the house. It was so hot in the house that it melted Crawford’s fleece jacket and singed the hair off his head, eyebrows, and legs. Today, he has a red nose like Rudolph, which just might be a sign that he is also the leader of the pack.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Crawford remembers one of the best presents he ever got was when buying butane gas. He was always required to pay for it in 10 days of the invoice. When times were hard, Doss Butane told him he would give him 30 days of invoice. Mr. Crawford said, “That was the best Christmas gift I could have received.”
Crawford started the propane gas business on July 1, so naturally, in the summer, he did not sell any gas. On December 1, he paid himself his first check, and his balance in his account was eight cents. He still has that eight cents in his briefcase and when he wants to remind himself of just how bad “hard times” were.
When Mr. & Mrs. Crawford moved here, he went to the bank to see Mr. J. T. Steele, president of Security State Bank, about borrowing money to buy a house on Cole St. which was the home of the Methodist church’s minister of music. He said, “I was able to buy the house with no down payment, and my monthly rent was $62. Mrs. Crawford majored in speech therapy and taught school for $300/mo. in 1956. She was a key person in starting the Little Red School House and later taught in the Starkville schools. The Crawfords were also instrumental in the establishment of Starkville Academy. Whether in business or education, the Crawfords tirelessly helped to grow Starkville’s businesses and educational system. Crawford sold his propane gas business in 1965 for ten times what he paid for it.
The building that housed Crawford Butane Gas is shown in The 1928 Interstate City Directory for Starkville. It is listed under the title ”Garages” and was located at  110 W. Main, which is remembered by locals as a wash and grease shop. The telephone number was 156-W. D. C. Morton’s home phone number was 156. John Crawford Butane Gas Company’s phone number was 628.
Judge T. B. Carroll stated in “Five Years of Progress, 1923-1928” that “Several new automobile businesses have come to the town, the principal ones being the Starkville Auto Company, Reynolds and Smith, Inc., the East Miss. Motor Company, Morton’s Garage, and City Service Garage.”
Currently ERA Town & Campus Realty occupies the property, which has also served as home to a beauty shop, cable company, political campaign headquarters, art gallery, café, and temporary consignment sales.
Mr. Warren Oakley remembers, “John Crawford was the key person in the establishment of Starkville Academy, and I helped him in that endeavor. I remember well when he built the propane gas business on the railroad spur on Hwy 12, which today is Scott’s Propane Gas.”
Debbie Mahoney Nettles remembers,”I purchased the property in the spring of 2005 from Bill and Stacie Andrews, who accepted my purchase bid even though it was not the highest one submitted.  Bill loved the old building and historic value of the property and wanted to protect it as long as possible. When I submitted my bid, I attached a ‘use description’ and a rough sketch of my intended renovations and additions. He knew I shared his love and desire for nurturing this grand old man.”
Working under the reports that the gas station building on the site and grease/wash bay were built in 1935, I wanted to preserve as much of the original structure as possible. I created additional square footage that includes office space, interior storage, a conference/training room, and a break area by connecting the two buildings. [Note: The bricks for 111 W. Main, First UMC, and Georgia Bryan Lindley’s home on Greensboro share the same type/color brick.]
Sometimes in emails and advertising, I’ll add that historic 111 W. Main is the home of ERA Town & Campus Realty, located in the Central Neighborhood District.
Renovations by Bill Andrews and Debbie Nettles have earned the building recognitions including a 1999 Commercial Preservation Award presented to Main Street Gallery by the V.C.C. Historic Preservation Committee and a 2006 award from the Starkville Central Neighborhood Foundation for “Adaptive Rehabilitation.”
I have an original oil can from the gas station, and John Crawford gave me a photograph from 1958, when his company was in what is now our conference room. No, my building colors are not in honor of John and Ole Miss. The colors are ERA’s and American red, white, and blue.  I’m an avid Mississippi State supporter. 

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