It’s not often a gas station appears on anyone’s bucket list. Kensinger Service & Supply in Grand Island, NE, isn’t just any gas station. It’s a monument to the early days of American automobile travel: Kensinger’s was built in 1936 along the legendary Lincoln Highway, the country’s first coast-to-coast road.
“Lincoln Highway fans want to stop here,” says Scott Grudzinski, whose family has operated the station for four generations. “Antique and classic car owners come here and want their pictures taken.”
Kensinger’s is a gritty one-story structure with three gas pumps that were new half a century ago. The station originated as a rare truck stop, with bunk beds in the basement and a soup kitchen in the back room. (Trucks didn’t have sleeper cabs in those days.) A small trailer court and wash house were added in the 1940s.
Step inside, where a wall of dusty shelves is stocked with transmission fluid, fuel additives and a few replacement parts. A well-cuddled cat bed sits atop a battered metal cabinet. You’re welcome to pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit a spell on one of the mismatched chairs. A bag of chips costs 75 cents.
“Things haven’t changed much over the years,” says Scott.
Scott’s grandfather, Richard Kensinger, was hired at the station soon after it opened, and he bought it in 1964. Today Scott and his son Joe pump gas and wash windshields. They make minor repairs like oil and tire changes. Sometimes the regulars help themselves. While I was visiting, one customer pumped his own gas and signed a handwritten receipt. He would settle up later. The station nods to modern-day commerce by accepting credit cards, but it also takes personal checks.
Back in the heydey, Kensinger’s was bustling. Not so much anymore. U.S. Route 30 absorbed the Nebraska stretch of the Lincoln Highway and then was rerouted. The fast-moving Interstate 80 came through town and took away the interstate travel. Most of the Kensinger clientele now is local truck trade and nostalgia-seekers.
But the Lincoln Highway is not completely forgotten. Adjacent to the station is a marker: A concrete post with a medallion featuring with profile of President Abraham Lincoln, in whose honor the highway was named. The markers are a frequent sight along the historic roadway.
Behind the station is another cultural gem: The remnants of an original Seedling Mile, completed in 1915. Roadways back then were mostly earthen or gravel, and they were difficult to traverse when muddy. Seedling miles were demonstration projects sponsored by the Lincoln Highway Association, a group of industry professionals and enthusiasts, to garner enthusiasm and funding for paved roads. They would be the “seeds” from which cement-paved roads would extend across the nation.
The Grand Island seedling mile was the first of Nebraska’s such projects and the second one built in the country. In 2013, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is said to be the only remaining seedling mile left in the U.S. not replaced, widened or paved over.
Kensinger Service & Supply
1810 E. U.S. Highway 30
Grand Island, NE 68803
(If you’d like to read more about historic gas stations, link to this story about the Mahan Filling Station on Route 66 in Illinois by my travel-writer friend Cindy Ladage AKA Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl.)
Thank you to Visit Grand Island, who hosted my media visit!