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Toolin’ Around Town: Terry Park digs deep to uncover Petaluma history

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Ever since Petaluma native Terry Park retired from a 35-year career in the insurance industry, and an overlapping 30-year hitch serving in the California National Guard, he’s had plenty of time to do the things he enjoys, including researching and writing about unique or nearly forgotten occupations and businesses from Petaluma’s past.

In what might be described as an adventure into “Do you remember when?” or “Where was that business located?,” Park selects topics that trigger his interest before delving into painstakingly thorough explorations of the topic, mostly using old city directories, telephone books, newspapers and other sources. The results are informative and enjoyable books, making for a fun ride through Petaluma history and reminding us of eras in which we lived and those that preceded them.

In “A History of Petaluma’s Auto Dealers,” Park documented 134 auto dealers occupying 80 locations in town since 1905. He describes the production of early California automobiles, local car builders and the first Petalumans to own motor-driven vehicles. He lists dealerships (originally called agents), their locations, and the length of time each one existed. Charts and tables, along with newspaper ads and photos of dealerships accompany Park’s narrative, offer keen insight into what was once a thriving industry.

“It’s like an onion,” explains the 69-year-old Park, describing his process of historical research. “You just keep peeling back the layers and finding more information.”

As to which street had the most dealership locations, here’s a hint: it was on a main street through town.

In his self-published “A History of Petaluma Gasoline Stations,” he applied the same curiosity to reveal the history and location of the city’s once numerous gas stations, their owners and time in business. This is a topic many of us can remember and relate to. Petaluma’s ubiquitous service stations offered many local boys their first job, including Park himself, who, as an 8-year-old, used a stool to wash windshields at his father’s Union Service Station at 330 Western Avenue. An additional benefit was learning the makes and models of almost every car … and where to find their gas caps.

Chronicling Petaluma’s long forgotten businesses wasn’t originally in Park’s plans for his future. The oldest of five, Park was the son of Harry and Katherine Park. A Pennsylvania native, Harry Park was an Army Air Force pilot who flew World War II combat missions over New Guinea, and later piloted cargo aircraft into Hamilton Field, where he was stationed. Discharged from the service, he and his wife moved to Petaluma, where he took a job with Pedranti Automotive Service (Preston Automotive).

Harry Park worked for Niles Buick and Sanderson Ford before opening his own service station in 1956. Did you know 70 percent of Petaluma’s service station owners and car dealerships were in business for four years or less?

Besides washing windshields, Terry Park earned money doing home chores and collecting refundable soda pop bottles. For fun, he played city league baseball and Pop Warner football. As a freshman at St. Vincent High School, he and a friend placed an ad in the Argus Courier offering to paint houses. Without a business name, license, or insurance, they painted local homes for four years.

After earning a degree in business management from San Jose State, Park enlisted in the Army, serving in Vietnam gathering combat intelligence. After two years, he joined the Petaluma National Guard’s 579th Engineer Battalion Combat, where he rose through the ranks before retiring with 30 years of service. Park and his wife, Marie, a former photo processor for the FBI, were married in 1973, and have lived in Petaluma — where they raised their two daughters, Ginny and Rachel — since 1977. Marie once worked for Hughson Ford in San Francisco, mentioned in Park’s book as the first Ford dealership in the country. She worked in the Petaluma School District office and as secretary for Valley Oaks home schooling.

Terry Park’s foray into history writing began with a reconstruction of his father’s military career, and led to research into Miwok Indians and land grants. A former Cruisin’ the Boulevard board member, he continues to contribute informative “American Graffiti” related stories for the group’s annual car-show program. In 2013, Park began his detail-oriented research into gas stations and auto dealerships. Among his findings was automobile related pot-hole problems were being reported in 1905.

“My research is like a report,” Park says. “It’s a work in progress as more information becomes available. When the digitized Argus-Courier came online, it became much easier.”

Future research topics may include the small neighborhood grocery stores once common around town, or various old poultry buildings. His self-published research can be found at the Petaluma Historical Museum, Petaluma Library History Room, and Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library.

(Harlan Osborne’s column, ‘Toolin’ Around Twon,’ runs every other week. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net)