© Jerry F. Couch 2020
Those of us “of a certain age” remember Porter Auto Sales as one of St. Paul’s signature businesses. Many of us bought cars there over the years and also patronized the company’s service department, which was excellent. Personal hometown customer service was Porter’s goal and they delivered.
The following description of Porter Auto Sales’ origins and evolution comes from the Clinch Valley Times’ 1961 Progress Edition. For that edition, businesses in St. Paul purchased ad space to showcase their achievements. These were good economic times when coal was the crown prince of the Appalachian region – and well on its way to becoming king in the 1970’s.
Pictured above, Mr. R. L. Culbertson
In the photo contained in the Progress Edition article, you’ll notice that several folks had traded in their 1959 Fords for either Pontiacs or Oldsmobiles. When that photo was taken, Chevrolets (later to be Porter’s bread and butter) were still being sold by Hall Chevrolet, Earnest Hall’s dealership down the road.
Pictured above, Porter Auto Sales as it appeared in 1938.
The site Porter Auto Sales occupied was adjacent to the long-gone Bickley Bridge. It had been built in 1931 as a replacement for the original 1890 single-lane Rosser Bridge. From the standpoint of automobile marketing and service, this was a high-visibility location on a (then) major highway. However, the building itself backed up to the Clinch River, rendering the location very disadvantageous from time to time.
The photo above was taken behind Porter Auto Sales during the Flood of 1957. As a safety measure, cars seen in the background were crossing the Bickley Bridge one at a time. The old Bartee house can be seen in the background.
ON A SIDE NOTE: Allen and Ann Gregory were married on January 29, 1957 at “The Clinchfield House” on Gray Hill. That day, the floodwaters of the Clinch River were still rising. The town would soon to be cut off from the outside world as roads became covered by swirling muddy water laden with debris. Allen and Ann’s car was the last one permitted to cross the Bickley Bridge before it was closed to all traffic. What a way to begin your honeymoon!
Pictured above: Ann Young Gregory on her wedding day. Her father, David Young, stands at her right.
On the day of the Young-Gregory wedding, portions of Riverside Drive were under water from the Robinette Trestle to the Bickley Bridge. For that reason, the driver of Norton Floral’s delivery truck had to hand-carry Ann’s flowers up the Norfolk & Western tracks to a spot in downtown St. Paul for pickup
During the flood, Dr. J. D. Creger made an emergency trip from his home in Castlewood across the Bickley Bridge to St. Paul in a wrecker belonging to a local garage. From there, Dr. Creger was taken to the home of Clyde and Yuko Robinson. That day, baby George Robinson (retired St. Paul police officer) made his debut.
Pictured above, a 1950’s Cadillac hearse navigates floodwaters on Riverside Drive in front of Porter Auto Sales as it approaches the Bickley Bridge.
In the photo above, a portion of Porter Auto Sales appears at right. Notice the second floor apartment.
RETURNING TO TODAY’S TOPIC of Porter Auto Sales: Before the 1957 flood receded, the water in Porter’s showroom and garage had reached a maximum level of three feet (the water would be even higher in 1977). For a short time, the building became an island.
Floods were and still are a thing to be reckoned with in the St. Paul vicinity. Material ruined by floodwater was hauled away, mud was shoveled, bleach was used to clean and disinfect areas in contact with contaminated water, and whatever could be salvaged was made serviceable once again. Then, after much hard, messy work, it was business as usual once again.
FLOODS ARE BAD….BUT FIRES ARE WORSE
A little more than a year after the Flood of 1957, Porter Auto Sales suffered a disastrous fire. The following article describing the fire was transcribed from the February 15, 1958 edition of The Bristol Herald-Courier.
Blaze Hits St. Paul
Flames Destroy Truck, Auto
ST. PAUL, VA., Feb 14 — An early afternoon fire which started in the paint room gutted the Porter Auto Sales garage here Friday.
Mayor H. K. Fletcher said a rough estimate of the damage would run to $75,000 to $80,000. The garage was owned by C. D. Porter.
Fletcher said a spark from a welding torch caught a can of paint thinner on fire. He said the paint room “literally exploded.”
The fire started about 1 p.m. Volunteer firemen were still pouring water on the smoldering ruins at 5 o’clock.
The Coeburn fire truck was sent to aid the St. Paul firemen and remained for more than two hours.
Fletcher said four automobiles were in the garage. Two downstairs in the service department were destroyed. Two new cars in the display room were heavily damaged.
Two apartments were situated upstairs over the garage, but one was occupied. Fletcher said the furnishings in it were ruined.
The garage was partially covered by insurance.
A short time earlier, at 12:30 p.m. firemen were called to the home of Emory Robinson where they extinguished a fire with little damage.
Fletcher said the fire truck had just returned to the station when the whistle blew on the garage fire.
While the firemen were battling the garage fire, another blaze broke out in a service station across the street, Fletcher said. With the firemen already at the scene, it was quickly extinguished.
This picture of the Porter Auto Sales fire (above) was taken by Mrs. Peyton Russo, a professional photographer in St Paul. Mrs. Russo also served as a local correspondent for the Kingsport News for several years.
Within a short time, Porter Auto Sales was rebuilt and back in business. This is how the building looked in 1959, minus its second floor.
In the 1960’s, Porter Auto Sales added a Chevrolet franchise to its line of offerings. Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac spanned a wide price range, attracting an economically diverse customer base. The ad for Chevrolets pictured below was featured during the “1965 model year introduction” in (you guessed it) the Clinch Valley Times.
In the 1970’s, Prince Coal ascended to the crown, becoming “King Coal.” Miners’ salaries reached new highs and so did SWVA consumerism. New cars were lined up in a glittering row in front of Porter’s. The three photos below date from the October, 1978 introduction of the dealership’s 1979 model line.
Porter Auto Sales had enjoyed a successful 54-year run – a proud testament to a business that had weathered the ups and downs of the Great Depression, WWII, and the vicissitudes inherent in a local economy that was primarily dependent upon a single industry. Finally the day came when it was time to pass the torch to new owners. Ken Pope purchased the dealership. Though the name of the business changed, the quality of customer service remained high.
In the 1980’s the one-time location of Porter Auto Sales was demolished due to the St. Paul Redevelopment Project. Ken’s Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Inc. moved to Castlewood. The dealership first occupied a tempporary locaton and then a permanent location was built.
Through subsequent changes of ownership, the hereditary descendant of Porter Auto Sales is with us today in the form of Morgan McClure Chevrolet GMC in Castlewood. They are good people with whom to do business and our community is fortunate to have them.