Ray Shearer—business owner?

In the family stories I was told about my father’s father’s father Ray Z. Shearer, Ray was always portrayed as poor, but he was a very capable, mechanically minded man who worked for a bunch of different garages as mechanic, drove a truck for a while, and even raced dirt track race cars. The details in these stories were thin, but consistent. I was under the impression that the most important parts of his work history were included in this brief overview. I figured that if he had been involved in something grand—for instance, let’s imagine that he established and ran his own business, that he advertised it extensively in the local paper, that he built a custom race car in that business, and that he then watched as his business was lost in a tragic accident that made headlines—well, that surely would have merited a mention in the brief story of Ray’s working life. Right?

So imagine my surprise when I found an advertisement in the August 1, 1919, edition of The Palco News (of Palco, Kansas) for The Star Garage—open day and night, Ray Shearer, proprietor. How had no one managed to remember such a big deal, especially for a man of apparently rather modest means?

After finding this 100-year-old ad, I did a deep dive and looked for any and all mentions of The Star Garage in local papers. What I found was nearly 60 mentions of Ray Shearer and/or The Star Garage in The Palco News between January 30, 1919, and March 19, 1920. Most of these are ads belonging to one of several advertising runs in the newspaper, and just a couple mentions are actual news pieces about Ray or The Star Garage. But even the advertisements have stories to tell.

The first newspaper mention during this period is the following on page 1 of the January 30, 1919, edition of The Palco News:

I included the first paragraph because it shows that due to the increasing popularity of the automobile, there was an increasing need for mechanics to service these automobiles. Ray Shearer saw that need and somehow came up with the money to rent Frank Hinkhouse’s garage and open the Star Garage.

The Palco News was published weekly, on Thursdays. Two weeks after the announcement of the opening of the Star Garage, the newspaper ran Ray’s first advertisement for his garage on February 13, 1919:

Whether through Ray’s intention or a typesetting decision, the Star Garage has now become The Star Garage. Curiously, Ray is identified as “J. H. Shearer,” although it’s also unclear whether this is Ray’s intention or just a typesetting error. In any case, this same ad ran weekly for 6 or perhaps 7 weeks:

  • February 13, 1919
  • February 20, 1919
  • February 27, 1919
  • March 6, 1919
  • (skipped March 13, 1919)
  • March 20, 1919
  • (March 27 edition not found)
  • April 3, 1919

Why did Ray’s ad not run in the March 13, 1919, edition of the paper? I’m guessing that this brief news item that did run in the newspaper that day gives a hint as to why:

Ray and Lena’s second son, Roy DeWight (“Dwight”) Shearer, was born on March 7, 1919, so Ray’s attention to his business details understandably slipped a bit that week.

Throughout this whole first run of advertisements, the proprietor was listed as “J. H. Shearer.”

Ray then appears to have revised his ad and purchased another ad run:

The only things to have changed between this second ad run and the first are the ad border and the first initial of the proprietor. J. H. Shearer is now Z. H. Shearer (that’s getting closer to Ray’s birth name of Zygonia Ray Shearer). This same ad appears to have run only twice:

  • April 10, 1919
  • April 24, 1919

A week or two later, Ray appears to have revised his ad once more and purchased another ad run:

The only things to have changed between this third ad run and the second are the ad border, the typeface, the abbreviation of proprietor, the consolidation of the city and state onto the proprietor line, and the second initial of the proprietor. Z. H. Shearer has now changed to Z. E. Shearer. I’m starting to get the impression that Ray’s handwriting wasn’t the easiest to read. This same ad ran weekly for two weeks:

  • May 1, 1919
  • May 8, 1919

Ray appears to have revised his ad yet again and purchased another ad run:

The only thing that changed between this fourth ad run and the third is the second initial of the proprietor. Z. E. Shearer has now changed to Z. R. Shearer. Finally—Ray’s initials are correct! This same ad ran weekly for 11 weeks:

  • May 15, 1919
  • May 22, 1919
  • May 29, 1919
  • June 4, 1919
  • June 11, 1919
  • June 20, 1919
  • June 27, 1919
  • July 4, 1919
  • July 11, 1919
  • July 18, 1919
  • July 25, 1919

In addition to building his business and fixing and storing other people’s cars, Ray appears to have been working on his own project car in his shop, as witnessed by this brief mention in the August 22, 1919, edition of the paper:

I imagine that Ray (or someone) must have taken a photo of his overland racer, and someone (perhaps even me) may have a copy of that photo. Please, dear Black / Shearer / Edel / Coddington / etc. cousins, so keep an eye out for this and other older photos.

That summer, Ray appears to have revised his ad again and purchased another ad run:

This ad represents a complete rewording of the ad. Ray’s name has changed from “Z. R. Shearer” to “Ray Shearer,” and he’s splurged on a telephone. He seems to have been an early adopter of the new-fangled phone technology, as his phone number was just “25.” This same ad ran weekly for 14–15 weeks:

  • August 8, 1919
  • August 15, 1919
  • August 22, 1919
  • August 29, 1919
  • September 5, 1919
  • September 12, 1919
  • September 19, 1919
  • September 26, 1919
  • October 3, 1919
  • October 10, 1919
  • October 17, 1919
  • October 24, 1919
  • October 31, 1919
  • November 7, 1919—new ad, see below; also surprise visit from Lena’s parents
  • (November 14 edition not found)
  • November 21, 1919

In the November 7th edition, the paper announced that Lena’s estranged parents had made a surprise visit to see her and Ray:

For whatever reason, it seems that Lena had reconciled with her parents, the Dutch Reformed Church minister Cornelius Edel and his wife Anna Kant van den Heuvel. Perhaps it was because they saw that their concerns over Ray not being a good husband and provider to Lena were apparently wrong, or perhaps because strains had already developed in Ray and Lena’s marriage, or perhaps they just missed their daughter.

On November 7th, Ray tried out a new ad format for The Star Garage:

This ad appears to have run in only a single issue of The Palco News.

On November 28th, The Star Garage appears to be suffering from a cash flow problem and Ray takes out an ad to sell a complete set of lightly used 32×4 globe casings:

Also in the November 28th edition of the paper was the following notice:

The following news piece was also in the November 28th edition of the paper:

November seems to have been a chaotic month for Ray. To accommodate the new floor, Ray would have had to empty his garage of all tools and supplies, as well as all cars stored there, for at least a week, probably a couple of weeks.

The same duo of ads (“who wants some globe casings” and “hey, where’s my shotgun?”) ran again in the December 5th edition of the paper.

In the December 12th edition, the globes and shotgun ads were gone, but so was Ray’s Star-Garage-centric ad. In its place was this presumably manufacturer-subsidized ad:

It appears that this ad represents an evolutionary step in Ray’s marketing strategy. Rather than pay for the entire ad himself, he’s now featuring two brand names and is presumably receiving subsidies from each of them for the ad. This same ad ran weekly for two weeks:

  • December 12, 1919
  • December 19, 1919

Ray slightly revised this ad to fit a presumably cheaper one-column-wide space in the December 26, 1919, edition of the paper:

It appears that Ray lost the advertising deal with Vesta Storage Batteries, but he was still able to feature Midco to help him pay for the ad. Or perhaps he just worked out a better deal with Midco that paid for more than he’d lose from dropping Vesta. If you’ll note, Ray has now positioned Star Garage as the exclusive distributor of Midco products.

Ray started 1920 with an advertising bang and made it clear that he hadn’t lost the backing of Vesta. While the majority of Ray’s ads ran on pages 2, 3, or 4 of the 4-page newspaper, this bold statement of an ad ran on page 1 of The Palco News:

This ad occupied about one-sixth of the front page of the newspaper, which is about 2–3 times as large as any of Ray’s previous ads for the Star Garage. Given the custom artwork and ad copy, it seems that Ray had entered into a more formal advertising agreement with Vesta. This ad ran in only a single issue (January 2, 1920) of The Palco News.

In the January 9th edition of the paper, Ray again ran a Vesta-focused ad on the front page. This one was much smaller than the last, taking up only the bottom third of a single column:

This ad ran weekly for 4 weeks:

  • January 9, 1920
  • January 15, 1920
  • January 23, 1920
  • January 30, 1920

The January 15th version of this ad was moved to the bottom of page 2, but on January 23, it was back on the front page. On January 30, it was moved to page 3.

On February 6, 1920, a new Vesta-focused ad for the Star Garage was back on the front page, above the fold at the top right of the page:

This ad ran weekly for 5 weeks:

  • February 6, 1920
  • February 13, 1920
  • February 20, 1920
  • February 27, 1920
  • March 5, 1920

Unfortunately, the top headline of the March 5th edition of The Palco News was the following:

Star Garage Burns

Tuesday as the morning freight train was pulling out of Palco, people were called from their homes and business buildings to learn the cause of prolonged whistling and discovered that the Star Garage on North Main Street was on fire. On account of so much oil being stored in the building, no attempt was made to save the structure, but heroic efforts were made to save the cars. Only two cars were gotten out before the smoke became too dense to save any more and as a result the wrecks of 7 cars were discernable after the fire had raged its course. A few auto accessories were moved from the store room, but work had to be abandoned on account of explosions caused by the presence of oil in the building, which was a total wreck and no insurance was carried by Frank Hinkhouse, who owned the building or by Ray Shearer, who was proprietor of the garage. The south part of this building was built by F M Ross some 18 years ago and the garage was attached to it several years later by O A Meade and was formerly used as a store and hall.

A curious coincident of this building was that some years ago when the Columbian hotel and buildings adjoining on the north were destroyed by fire this building which was across the street was saved by a bucket brigade and last Tuesday the Harry E Benson Drug store across the street was saved in the same manner. Fortunately there was no wind Tuesday or the whole town would have been in great danger.

Sadly, it appears that Ray had prepaid for the last run of ads (or was contractually required to run them by Vesta), as the ads for The Star Garage continued to run for two weeks after the garage had been totally destroyed by fire:

  • March 12, 1920 (page 3)
  • March 19, 1920 (page 4)

Thus ends Ray’s 14-month foray into being a business owner. It’s hard to imagine how Ray must have felt. His business was gone. His (presumably) main source of income for his family was gone. He may have had car owners and/or property owners coming after him for damages.

On top of this, Ray’s marriage would start to fall apart within months, and just 13 months after the fire consumed The Star Garage, his wife Lena’s petition for divorce was granted. I can’t help but imagine that this may have been due in some measure to the additional stress of the fire and the loss of his business.

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