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Art Johnson celebrates 60th anniversary in oil business

It's 3 a.m. Overnight crude oil trading doesn't sleep, and Art Johnson is wide awake, checking to see what's happening.

The 94-year-old owner of Johnson Oil Company operates like clockwork in the wee hours of the morning: he checks market trends, tank volumes, and makes the important decision of how much the price of fuel is going to be at his stores for the day.

It's a constant and long-running routine that's helped him remain successful: Johnson Oil is celebrating 60 years selling Shell gasoline and more in the area.

“It’s just like I started yesterday,” Johnson said. “I’ve been very fortunate and have had a blessed run with the business.”

Established in 1959, Johnson Oil started out as a provider of heating oil before it opened its first service station in 1965 in Amboy. Stations in Dixon, Franklin Grove, and Polo were added two years later, and it ventured into Iowa with a store in Clinton in 1972.

Much expansion and many remodels later, Johnson Oil now has 80 stores from as far west as Buffalo, Iowa, to its newest acquisitions in Morris two years ago.

The stores also include the Shell ExpressLanes in Oregon, Mt. Morris, Grand Detour, and Rochelle.

Johnson has seen the transition from full to self service at the pump, manual to automatic inventory management, and the establishment of a rewards program from Shell.

Long a Shell dealer, Johnson added BP to the company portfolio with the purchase of a chain of stores in La Salle and Kendall counties in 2011.

He didn't do it alone. His wife, Darlene, worked at his side for many years until she died in 2011, and his daughter, Kathy Peugh, handles plenty of day-to-day operations from its longtime home behind a Shell station at U.S. 30 and 12th Avenue in Rock Falls.

Grandchildren eventually came into the business, and great-grandchildren may be in line as well.

“They have all that high-tech stuff that keep us going on the right path,” Johnson said. “They fix pumps 100 miles away on their laptops. Sixty years ago, I had a pair of pliers and baling wire to fix a mechanical pump. What a change.”

Johnson grew up in rural Tampico, graduated from Tampico High School in 1944. Soon after, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on a catapult crew on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

He married Darlene on April 18, 1949, and they were together for 52 years. They made it a point each Sunday to make the rounds to each of the company's stations to collect paperwork.

“She was always very much part of the business,” he said. “She kept the taxes paid on time, which was about 10 or 12 of them each month to either Springfield or Washington. She was a great wife, mother, and business associate.”

Johnson actually has been in the fuel business for 70 years.

After his Navy days, he worked at International Harvester in Rock Falls for two years before a fuel delivery job opened up at the local Sinclair dealer.

For 10 years, he delivered fuel to at least nine stations in Sterling and Rock Falls alone, including stations across the intersection from his Route 30 store, where Family Table sits today, and another at the foot of First Avenue bridge in Rock Falls.

“Heating oil was a big thing then,” he said. “That’s all we had; 95 percent of all of the homes in Sterling and Rock Falls were heated with oil.” 

Winter months were busy for Johnson, but there wasn't much to do in the summer.

That's when he purchased a former Shell station in Amboy and made it his own. That station has gone through remodels and still sits at the corner of North Mason Avenue and East Wasson Road.

Service stations eventually turned into convenience stores with tobacco, food and other sundries; the Route 30 station was the first to make the transition in 1979, and Expresslane Inc. was formed to separate the company's store operations from fuel.

Simon Olalde, manager at the North End store on North Locust Street in Sterling, has worked for Johnson for nearly 40 years, back when full service still was common and the store had auto bays. 

It also has gone through several remodels and opens at 3 a.m. during the week. Johnson, who lives nearby, is there either before or just a few minutes after it opens.

“I’ve never heard anything bad about him,” Olalde said. “He’s a pretty fair guy as long as you tell the truth and don’t lie to him.” 

Since 1969, Johnson Oil has been rewarded by Shell each year with a vacation prize for being one of the company's top jobbers.

Art gives Peugh and her husband, Keith, the vacations these days; a reward for their hard work.

“Dad does the big stuff, and then he hands me the rest," Peugh said.

Johnson Oil is a dedicated contributor to local functions. He’s been a chairman of United Way campaigns and is the Rock Falls Chamber of Commerce’s 1993 Shoulder to the Wheel Award winner, which recognizes individuals and organizations that have made a difference in the community.

The generosity is the same for all of the territories each of his stations serves.

“We want to be involved,” he said. “Schools, chambers, city functions; each town is really a neighborhood business, and we’re a venue we can offer to that neighborhood. We want to be part of it.”