Free Service Tire: Where the rubber met the road for 100 years

Nathan Baker • Jun 30, 2019 at 8:36 PM

In 1919, the automobile was rolling across the country, changing lives and making fortunes.

Thanks to revolutionary advances in manufacturing efficiency, industrial juggernaut Ford Motor Company and its smaller competitors were churning out affordable vehicles, allowing more Americans to buy and drive them.

In that year, 100 years ago last week actually, Johnson City entrepreneurs Dan Wexler and Robert Wiley saw an opportunity in the explosive rise of the motorcar and founded Free Service Tire Co., a business and brand that still survives today.

Cars were less reliable at the time and constantly needed tire tubes patched, radiators refilled with water and tanks topped off with gasoline. The new company, which Wiley soon left to Wexler in favor of Florida’s warmer climes and real estate investment opportunities, offered these common repairs within five miles of its Buffalo Street office for the cost of materials, free of service charges.

Harrison Wexler said his grandfather knew one thing after graduating with a degree in agriculture in 1917 — he did not want to go back to the family farm.

Fortunately for Dan, industrialization and new transportation technologies had reached rural areas, providing new opportunities for residents of traditional farming communities.

“He looked out — it was just after World War I — and he said ‘I think I can make a business out of repairing these horseless carriages,’” Harrison said Wednesday. “Nobody really saw that automobiles were going to be a trend.”

Dan bought a small fleet of motorcycles with sidecars from the U.S. Army, took out an advertisement in the newspaper announcing the new business and set to work.

From the humble beginning as a corner service station, Free Service grew in leaps and bounds.

Dan added locations and products. Before turning back to its core of automotive service centers, Lewis Wexler Sr., Dan’s son, said the business was more of a small-scale Sears store, selling everything from shotguns and fishing boat motors to household appliances.

Before bank-issued credit cards rose around the midpoint of the century, Free Service issued lines of credit to its customers, despite that first newspaper ad that promised “Service and Quality First — Then Cash on the Spot for the Work.”

Eventually, the retail and commercial tire divisions were separated, catering to passenger vehicles with one branch and heavier machinery with the other.

Dan started up a tire retreading plant to bring in even more business.

When miners dug coal out of the Southwest Virginia hills, Free Service put tires on their digging equipment. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the whole town of Oak Ridge on acres of farm land for laboratories researching nuclear energy for the Manhattan Project, Free Service landed a contract to work on their heavy vehicles. When the Tennessee Valley Authority began building dams, Free Service outfitted its earth movers. When the interstate highway system came through, Free Service kept its trucks and diggers rolling, too.

“Our business changed as the country changed,” Harrison said. “As the U.S. economy expanded, we expanded.”

When it came time for Lewis to leave the nest, he said, like his father before him, he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with the family business.

He’d worked part-time at the business in his teens, but when his father asked him to start his career there, Lewis said he didn’t know anything about the tire business and refused — but that wasn’t the end. After graduating college in 1958, he joined a Goodyear Tires management program and went to work in its Memphis stores.

Lewis and his wife birthed a son, Lewis Jr., in Memphis before the family moved to Maryville for a job at another Goodyear store. There, the family again grew when a daughter, Susan, was born.

In 1962, as Goodyear prepared to transfer Lewis and his family to Middle Tennessee, Lewis said he recognized his place at home.

“I called my dad and I said, ‘You know, I kind of like this,’” Lewis said. “I liked it because I was learning about it the right way.”

When Dan offered Lewis a position at a Free Service store in Kingsport, he took it, because he said he felt like he’d put in the time and effort to learn about the business. It was in Kingsport that Harrison was born.

Lewis advanced from a retail store manager and supervisor to supervise the commercial division. In 1971, he became company president. In 2012, Lewis Jr. took over for him. Harrison worked on the commercial side of the business after earning a master’s degree in business.

In the late 1990s, Free Service moved its commercial tire business, for tractor-trailers and heavy equipment, from a warehouse at the intersection of Market Street and Knob Creek Road in Johnson City to a facility near the junction of Interstates 26 and 81 on Eastern Star Road. The Wexlers said the new location and facility were better suited for the large vehicles that came in and out.

In 2010, Johnson City turned its attention to the downtown area, and Free Service, more specifically its property, played a big role in its redevelopment plans.

The company’s former tire retreading plant was in old tobacco warehouses built on top of Brush Creek in downtown Johnson City. The creek’s restrictive channels caused bottlenecks that resulted in destructive floods during heavy rains.

The city wanted to correct the problem and encourage development downtown again, and came to Lewis with a proposal to buy Free Service’s downtown property for a floodwater mitigation project. After some negotiation, the city bought the land and turned the block of warehouses into what is now Founders Park and the neighboring Pavilion, a cornerstone of the downtown revitalization efforts.

Once Free Service moved its downtown service center to a new location on North Roan Street, that property, the former Tweetsie Railroad depot and a neighboring hotel, became Yee-Haw Brewing Co. and the trendy White Duck Taco Shop.

“It’s sort of strange to go to the park or Yee-Haw, having spent so much time there working, and it being ground-zero for this hipster movement,” Harrison said.

Last year, after 99 years of local control, the Wexlers sold the Free Service brand and its 20 commercial and retail locations to national chain Monro Auto Service and Tire Centers. Monro kept Free Service’s regional brand intact.

Though no longer a company leader, the Wexlers said they are proud of the impact their family business had on the development of Johnson City and the surrounding areas.

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