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Morris Food Shop comes full circle as a Shell station

Debra Loen, left, Shell store manager, accepting on behalf of Shell gas station/Morris Food Shop, a framed reproduction of the original "Shell Log Cabin" photo that was donated by Lynn Halbakken Tatge, Morris Sun Tribune's Looking Back editor.

MORRIS, Minn. -- They say history repeats itself. One prime example in Morris is the Shell gas station coming back-to its original location 79 years later.

Two weeks ago, at 300 Atlantic Avenue, the yellow and green BP sign came down and the yellow and red Shell sign came up. In 1934, brothers Carl and Odin Johnson, along with their wives Blanche and Nina, built the first Shell gas station. Their business, named "the Shell Log Cabin gas station/cafe" had a distinctive log cabin exterior with the new feature of neon lights found all around the building, which must have been quite an eye-catching view to witness driving along Morris' main street during the 1930's. There was strong competition amongst gas stations in the mid-1930's, for there were approximately 15 gas stations in Morris competing against each other.

The customer appeal Johnson's supplied was a cafe attached to the gas station-the only one like it in town and the station was also known as a "truckers' headquarters" because they furnished cots in a back room for the road weary truckers to stop and rest. A comment found in a September 1984 Morris Tribune article states about Johnson's early days of business: "The establishment became known quickly as a popular gathering place. For approximately 12 years, its hours were literally around the clock (even on holidays). Blanche Johnson, one of the four persons initially involved in the business, remarked in jest, "We didn't know where the key was.'"

Odin and Nina bowed out of the business after the initial four years were up, but Carl and Blanche continued to own it until 1976, selling after 43 years of ownership. The gas station was then sold to Dell Efterfield of Minneapolis. The last owner of the original gas station was Don Voorhees.

After Blanche decided to give up running the cafe business by herself, Orville (Shorty) and Mayme Waller owned the Shell Cafe until 1981. From 1981 to 1984, Lynn Halbakken bought the cafe where she and her mother, Lillian Halbakken, operated the cafe. The building was torn down in early October of 1984 when George Theilen bought the land to build George's Food N' Fuel gas and convenient store. The current store has been BP Amoco up until about two weeks ago, the last part of July.

In putting together a historical memento for the new Shell, I learned the history of the owners, the Chamberlain family, and their tie to the Johnsons, which entails an interesting twist to the "coming full circle" of the Shell gas station. Pike and Ellard Chamberlain founded Chamberlain Oil in 1949, starting a local service station along with a bulk delivery service in Clontarf, Minn. In an interview with Laura Rentz, Ellard's daughter, Chamberlain Oil supplied Carl Johnson with gas, fuel and lubricants in the early 1970's at Johnson's Shell station which stood at the same location as the new Shell does today. The Chamberlain's recalled their connections with the Johnson's after reading the history of the first Shell station. The Chamberlain family states that "they had a very friendly working relationship with the Johnsons, he was very well respected in the industry."

One can stop today at the new Shell gas station/Morris Food Shop and get a cup of coffee and a donut, just like they did 79 years ago-some things don't change throughout time. When filling up the gas tank at your next visit to the new Shell, check out the state-of-the-art television screens while pumping your gas. When making your purchases inside the Morris Food Shop, check out a bit of history by looking for the picture of the original Shell Log Cabin gas station/cafe.