In the 1920s, Alonzo Craft would deliver kerosene to local grocery stores in buckets. The kerosene was sold out of a container set up near the produce. "Don't get that kerosene on the potatoes," the grocers would warn. Nearly 90 years later, Craft Oil Company was delivering gasoline and products in 18-wheel tanker trucks carrying 8,000 gallons of gasoline with another Lon Craft in charge. He's the grandson of the original.
Now, though, the third-generation business is not in the family. An out-of-town company, RelaDyne Co., bought the business a few weeks ago. Lon Craft, the last president of Craft Oil, said the sale agreement included the new company keeping the Craft employees. "They've been with us a long time and they're good people," he said. The business is still at the same site on Strickland Drive and has the same telephone number.
The story of Craft Oil Co. can be hard to tell. Blame it on Lon, the name. The name Alonzo has been in the family even before the founder of the company. The grandfather had two sons, Alonzo and George. Then Alonzo, also called Lon, had two sons and named them Lon and George. George had a son named George David and there's a David in the oil business provenance, too. The grandson Lon, who joined the business in 1964, had a different initial in his name so he wasn't technically a "junior." Then he went and named his son as a Lon Jr. "I threatened his life if he named his son Lon," he said. There is no new generation of Lons.
Lon said he decided to retire because business "ceased to be fun after George (his brother) died" in March 2009. The family company that started with buckets of kerosene ended up as a distributor of Texaco gasoline and oil products. After Texaco underwent corporate changes a decade ago, Craft Oil began distributing different brands of products. The company always had a tank of kerosene for customers, even today. Lon said the modern kerosene doesn't burn smoky like the product his grandfather sold.
The first Alonzo Craft had to go to work when he was in the first grade because of the death of his father. He eventually sold the kerosene, gasoline or diesel and would make a penny a gallon profit. By the 1920s, he was driving 55-gallon barrels of products all the way to Vidor or Mauriceville. If he sold out, he had a 55-cent profit.
"Uncle Dave" had a one-pump gasoline station on Green Avenue by Third Street. A Chevrolet dealership later built on the site. Lon said if a customer ordered five gallons, Dave would pump up the amount into the holding tank. If the car couldn't hold the full amount, the excess was run off into the street. About 1925 Alonzo bought out Dave. Pierce Petroleum contacted Alonzo and wanted him to become the local commissioned agent.
The family still has a photograph taken of Alonzo and employee Wallace Cooper standing next to Orange’s first tank truck. The tank truck was decorated with crepe paper as Cooper drove it in a Fourth of July parade in 1929 or 1930. Lon said Cooper put on his new overalls to wear for the parade. The tank truck is parked on grass at Fifth and Elm streets.
Sinclair Oil bought Pierce. The Craft family switched to Sinclair and had a site on Main Street by the railroad tracks. The second generation of Crafts, Lon and George, went into business with their father, Alonzo. George ended up on the road as a salesman for Sinclair because “there was not enough money to feed all the families,” Lon said. Before World War II started, the Uncle George got a job at Consolidated Western Steel, which had a then-new shipyard in Orange. Though he stayed involved in the family business, that George continued to work at the shipyard and retired as personnel director at its later name, American Bridge.
The next generation of Lon and George played at the distributing center as boys, jumping from barrel to barrel.
The Craft name was more stable than the oil companies. Lon said Phillips Petroleum bought out Sinclair in 1955; so the family became Phillips. In 1961, Texaco contacted the family and offered a distributorship. “It was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Lon said.
Lon joined the family business in 1964. His cousin George D. (David) Jr. came aboard in 1969 and Lon’s brother George started in 1970. Dana Craft (David’s sister and Lon and George’s cousin) was added to the board of directors in 1975. And if you think the names of brothers and cousins are confusing, the two families built houses next door to each other on Link Avenue about 1960.
In 1981, Craft Oil ventured into service stations and then into convenience stores. Eventually the company owned seven convenience stores. The family stayed with Texaco for more than 40 years. But time and corporate mergers cut out Texaco. The Crafts ended up being independent distributors on gasoline and selling Shell or Chevron motor products.
Lon has three grown children. They have all moved from Orange and had no desire to move back for the family business. So now Lon is retired, along with the name Craft Oil Co. He said he’s spending his time doing “Whatever Diana tells me,” referring to his wife, a retired school teacher.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT.com-