I can still hear the crack of the bat. It had an unusual ring. Hardwood contacting a baseball sounds different from one smacking a rock freshly plucked from a gravel road.
It was the early 1950s and the southwesterly edge of Slater was a quiet spot. Not much activity there. Definitely a poor location for a gasoline station. That’s what made Earp’s so special. At least to the few kids who regularly hung out there.
My friend ran the place. Well, that might be a little stretch. Let’s put it this way: 11-year-old Kenny "Long Ball" Nelson maned the gas pumps, checked the engine oil and collected money from the few customers who happened by. How this all came about makes an interesting story.
Lewis Earp owned Earp Oil Company which consisted of a gas station and a bulk fuel delivery service. Lewis liked the bulk delivery part of the business but couldn’t care less about the service station. His son Louie had ran the station during his high school years but joined the Army shortly after graduation.
At the time, Kenny was the lone delivery boy for the Ames Daily Tribune. It was a long route covering the whole town. A couple of folks living in that part of town subscribed to the paper so Kenny made a regular stop at the station for a Pepsi and peanuts.
Lewis had drafted his niece into running the station but she and her family had moved out of town; that left him watching the place when he wasn’t out delivering fuel oil. As the old man and young boy discussed each other’s problems, Kenny got a new job offer. Kenny found it difficult to believe Lewis would trust an 11-year-old kid to run his station, but that’s what happened. He would spend the next six years of his life, until he graduated from high school, running Earp’s station.
The job wasn’t very demanding. Kenny often found himself looking for something to do. Being an ardent baseball fan he always brought his glove, ball and bat. That worked out great. The gravel road out front saw so few cars it made an ideal infield. Problem was, attracting a pitcher and fielders to join him.
Lacking people power Kenny did the next best thing. He became the pitcher and the batter. He’d toss up the ball and then hit it. Trouble was, he also had to shag the ball which usually landed over the fence in Roznos’ pasture.
It didn’t take Kenny long to realize that the gravel road also furnished an abundance of balls. All he had to do is reach down, grab a rock, toss it in the air and "crack" another home run over the centerfield fence.
Kenny’s stone hitting continued for a few years. Eventually, the gravel road became a state highway (210), was hard-surfaced and became a fairly busy roadway.
With the increase in road traffic came more business for Earp’s station, so Kenny had no time to smack rocks anyway. In 1958 he left Earp’s after graduating (a member of the last class of Slater High.)
The service station is still there although it no longer has gasoline. Kenny, who is now retired and lives nearby, still stops by regularly to visit. He is always welcomed by present day owner Fred Mason.
Across the street (about where most of the rocks Kenny hit would land) is the Slater Baptist Church. "It’s built on a mighty good foundation." Kenny proclaimed recently.
(Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He lives near Cambridge.)