CADILLAC — Main Street is losing an 85-year-old Mitchell St. landmark, Payne's Tire Company, a business owned by three generations of the Montague family. Since the sold banner was slapped across the for sale sign on the building, people are stopping in to wish Rob and Tom Montague well in their retirement.
The Montague brothers thrive on these visits. The regulars pop-in the back door near a corner with a few oil-stained chairs directed toward a huge wood stove and a counter where a rescue kitten peeks out from behind the clutter.
Ever since their grandparents, Ray and Josephine Payne, founded the business in 1935 there has been an open-door policy — carried on by their daughter Joyce and son-in-law Bob Montague — and their sons Rob and Tom.
For 85 years people have been drawn to the business not only for good products and honest service, but for friendship, laughter, gossip and partying.
"Part of the reason it was so special is because of Rob and Tom and Flat Tire," said Cadillac native Craig Carlson. "Jim Potvin called Bob Montague 'Flat Tire.' And he was hilarious. They were all there, everybody hung out; Jim and Nels Potvin, Shag Townsend ... Bob was a friend to everybody, everybody liked him. And gosh, Rob is one of the most jovial guys I've ever met in my life. He's always happy and that's the way everything was there."
Bob and Joyce, who also owned the Spot Roller Rink, hosted an infamous Christmas party for years.
"My mom spent weeks making the food," Rob said. "They called it The Raising of the Hoist."
"They put a table up on the lift and filled it with hors d'oeurves," recalled Ken Orshal. "Anybody that wanted to come and all of the regulars showed up. It was one of the best Christmas parties of the year."
Rob and Tom bought the business in the early 1980s when Tom returned from the Air Force. A younger crowd began opening the back door.
"I was working for Meyer Construction then and Rob and I met at Crystal Mountain, we were both ski instructors," Orshal said. "That's where our friendship started. So I would drop in on my breaks. They always heated that place with a wood stove. There were always a couple of guys around the fire, and cookies and doughnuts. You could take a break, sit down and catch up on what was going on."
At the end of the day, the corner filled up again, a cross-section of suits and jeans.
"It was the place to go," Carlson said. "There had a fridge full of beer and an old coffee can. Whenever you took a beer you threw in some money, mostly on Friday afternoons. Everybody had a good time while Rob and Tom just kept right on working — always kidding back and forth. It was a fun place to be. Everybody was laughing and having a good time. A lot of people went in there every night, it was just everybody. I swear you could see anybody in there on any given day."
The end of an era
Rob, 63, and Tom, 70 negotiated with the new owners for more than year before the sale was finalized. For them it came just in time.
"We made a big push to get out of here before the winter strain," admitted Rob.
"Mentally and physically we just can't do it," Tom said. "The tires have gotten too big and heavy. It's taking a toll on us."
Thirty-seven years of lifting tires that can weigh up to 85 pounds and working on the cold concrete floors will end this month.
"We were here six days a week, that was it," Rob said. "They had yard trucks over at CMI, old International trucks that would haul the scrap steel to pour into the molds. We had to change those tires in mud two-feet deep. It was a mess, we were totally covered with muck. Sometimes you would get three or four calls a day on that."
"It was hard on the back in those days," Tom said. "You did it all by hand. It was all labor."
"It's gotten rough the last few years," Rob said. "But then you look at the memories and you wouldn't give them up for nothing."
As kids, the boys would play on the tires in the basement of their grandparents' shop, the original 1907 building that was torn down and replaced in 1973 by Bob and Joyce.
When the new building went up they became a full-service gas station.
"Half the fun was having Rob wash your windshield and pump the gas with a rag hanging out of his back pocket," Carlson said.
Rob and Tom have years worth of favorite stories about their customers.
"The Michigan Bell guys, they would have eight or nine of them show up after work," Rob said. "That back door would open up ... we had friends and customers in the winter by the fire"
"People still drop in," Orshal said. "Some of the older guys have passed away but it's never really dwindled down, just different guys. Don Boersma, he was always there ... he was there as much as Rob and Tom who'd be working away, listening to the guys to get caught up on everything."
"We weren't all business," Rob said. "If we couldn't joke and have fun and play tricks we weren't happy."
Nothing. That's want they want to do. And get healthy again.
"You could see it get harder every year," Orshal said. "Every year it gets colder. Every year the cold just seems colder. I'm extremely happy for them. Rob put off surgery on his knee for years because he didn't want Tom stuck there by himself for an extended period of time. The first thing on his agenda is to get his knee replaced."
And then he might visit a friend in Florida.
Krist Oil Company of Iron River is going to build a new gas station and convenience store on the property.