McMillan’s: The end of an era

McMillan’s Auto Care & Towing in downtown Noblesville has been serving and chatting up customers for more than 35 years.

The family business — owned by Chuck and Dotty McMillan of Noblesville — has been a place where folks take their cars to get auto-repair service for more than three decades.

The father-and-son team of Chuck McMillan and Charlie McMillan Jr. have been fixing cars, and just about anything with a motor — motorcycles, lawn mowers, boats, four-wheelers and scooters — since they opened in July 1985.

But now the end of the era has come. 

McMillan’s Auto Care & Towing at Sixth and Conner streets closed at the end of November and vacated the property, which the McMillans have sold to developer, Republic Development of Fishers. 

Republic and J.C. Hart of Carmel, known as East River Partners, will build a $47.9 million mixed-use development with four-story apartment building, parking garage and retail shops at Fifth Street and Maple Avenue along the east side of the White River in the 3.4-acre area of McMillan’s Auto Care and the Hamilton County Employee Parking Lot. Demolition is expected to begin this month.

Chuck and Dotty McMillan — Chuck, who turns 86 in January, and Dotty, who turned 81 in December — are more than ready to retire.

“We met a lot of good people and friends up there at ‘The Shop,’” said Dotty McMillan, who sat down with Chuck and Charlie at their dining room table on New Year’s Day to reminisce about McMillan’s 35 years as well as its recent closing. She pulled from an old photo album a color picture of herself and Chuck wearing bright white Shell Oil Co. short-sleeve, button-front shirts with their names embroidered on them, standing inside the station’s front sales room in July 1985. She found another old photo of the exterior of the station, which was not only a place of work but a second home.

Dotty McMillan said she was most looking forward to needed rest and relaxation after having “to work day and night” for all of these years. 

Chuck McMillan said, “We were there longer than anybody who ever had that (station).”

The McMillans originally decided to become a Shell Oil Co. service station franchisee after “there was an ad in the paper.” “I had wanted, a long time ago, to open a muffler shop,” Chuck McMillan said. “I was looking for something to get into, I guess.”

The station was among several service stations in downtown Noblesville at the time.

The McMillans met all of the criteria, including Chuck, Dotty and Charlie being required to attend Shell’s training and management classes and Chuck and Charlie attending automotive classes, before opening in July 1985, and they wrote up the contract to lease the station, equipment and property from Shell. The station became Shell gas with auto care. Chuck McMillan took a leave of absence from his regular job. He was an over-the-road truck driver for 34 years, retiring in 1993, overlapping eight years of truck driving with owning and operating McMillan’s Auto Care & Towing, 1985-2021.

“I’d come in off a (truck-driving) run,” Chuck McMillan said, and he’d get a call that an employee hadn’t come in, so Chuck would sleep for a couple of hours, then head in to fill a night shift in the wee hours of the morning. 

In the beginning, when the gas pumps were open 24 hours, and before pumps had electronic readers, the McMillans would work three shifts because it was tough to find around-the-clock employees. After electronic credit card readers were added, but because there wasn’t enough business to pay employees to work the night shift, McMillan’s started leaving the pumps on from midnight until 6 a.m., one of the first stations in the area to sell gas at unmanned stations.

Just about everybody in the family has worked there. 

Dotty kept the books. Chuck kept track of the daily gasoline sales.

“We had a good time, the whole family working together,” said Chuck McMillan, who was born in Lenoir City, Tenn. He met Dorothy Malone, who was born in Burnside, Ky., in Noblesville, and they married in September 1959, and have three children.

Charlie McMillan, a master auto technician, worked all 35 years for his family business. When the full-service station opened in 1985, Rick Slagle was also an auto technician there.

Chuck and Dotty’s youngest daughter, Kim McMillan pumped gas, waited on customers, and ran the front sales room, which she kept filled with pop, candy, cigarettes and impulse-buying merchandise. Their elder daughter, Debbie McMillan Mason, did paperwork. Debbie’s husband, Floyd, pumped gas and waited on customers, and their son, Zach, answered phones and drove the wreckers. Debbie and Floyd’s daughter, Chelsea, was the only family who didn’t work at the station.

Besides a place where folks took their vehicles for repair, McMillan’s has been a place where friends, family and acquaintances drop in for a cup of coffee, some friendly advice and to catch up on the latest gossip.

“The Shop,” as the McMillans call it, has been a Shell Oil Co.-branded filling station since 1938, according to history, until the gas pumps closed in 1999.

Long before that, McMillan’s was the site of Noblesville’s first brewery, shown on a map in 1866, provided by Hamilton County Historian David Heighway. In a photo, circa 1880, was the Xafer Joseph brewery between 1869 and 1890, he said. Soon after that, it was occupied by Alice Manford, who ran a boarding house and restaurant. She sold it in 1935, and the first gas station was built in 1938. An April 27, 1938, Noblesville Ledger newspaper article reads that the filling station would take the place “of one of the oldest if not the oldest landmark in Noblesville,” according to Heighway’s research. 

According to Heighway’s research, previous Shell gas station owners included Ellingwood, 1938-1946 (there is a full-page newspaper advertisement announcing the July 16, 1938 opening just two days prior in the Noblesville Ledger promoting a “full day of entertainment” and “souvenirs for everyone”); Morris, 1946-1955; Cruzan, 1955-1957; B & C (Bentley and Camp), 1959; Camp, 1960-1964; Louie’s, 1964-1970 (new building); Ron Brown (Brownie’s), 1971-1980; Tom’s (Bultman),1980-1985; and McMillan’s, since 1985.

Chuck McMillan said over the years since he’s owned the property, “We enjoyed meeting the people. We had a lot of good customers,” he said. 

Don Green, their own mail carrier, took off work on opening day of the station in 1985. “He was a neighbor, the mail man, and had a little Bronco that he delivered mail in, and he was our first customer,” Chuck McMillan said. 

McMillan’s has been Noblesville’s version of Wally’s service station in “The Andy Griffith Show” with little formality at the station. 

People who know the McMillans, including Noblesville Police officers (McMillan’s installed and repaired speciality equipment for the police department’s cars), usually bypassed the sales room and headed straight for the service area, where Charlie and Chuck would stop what they were working on to shoot the breeze about what was going on in town.

And there were some recognizable celebrities who stopped in to fill up their tanks with gas, including the late Ryan White in his red 1988 Ford Mustang, a gift from Michael Jackson. Gene Keady, then Purdue’s head basketball coach, was also spotted. There is also “urban legend” heard from more than one person, that Elvis Presley on a rainy Sunday in the late 1950s, in a Cadillac, got full-service gas and new wiper blades at the station.

As more Shell and other brand gas stations were built and opened in nearby communities, McMillan’s Shell business slowly decreased. When Shell took out the gas pumps and removed the underground tanks, 23 years ago, and Shell removed all of the Shell signage, the McMillans had the first right of refusal and the opportunity to buy the property and keep their automotive repair and towing business there.

Business was obviously good over the years, though there have been some rough times when Hamilton County wanted to buy McMillan’s three lots for a parking garage and threatened the family’s livelihood with “eminent domain,” exercising the government’s right to take McMillan’s property and convert it to public use. However, the court ruled in July 2008 in McMillan’s favor, that the county did not have the right to acquire the property at 599 Conner St., in an October 2006 lawsuit filed by the county, according to a Noblesville Ledger newspaper article.

Fast forward to January 2021, when Noblesville Mayor Chris Jensen was quoted in the City’s media release, describing Noblesville’s west gateway, the area along White River. “Crossing the Conner Street bridge, I immediately look to my left and have nothing but nostalgia for my hometown and then I immediately look to my right and wonder how that filling station is still there.”

In actuality, it did not make financial sense for McMillan’s to do any cosmetic repairs to their shop over the past few years.

“We already made a deal to sell it,” Chuck McMillan said.

“It was five years ago when we first negotiated the sale…. They just kept dragging it out …,” he said.

 McMillan’s contract with the developers was signed nearly four years ago, on Jan. 25, 2018, during Mayor John Ditslear’s leadership, but the City would not announce the project for 34 months, until November 2020, during Jensen’s leadership. Noblesville Common Council approved the project at the Jan. 12, 2021, Common Council meeting. (John Hart of J.C. Hart said during the Jan. 12 presentation that he had “worked with Hamilton County and the previous (City) administration for over two years.”) McMillan’s contract with the developer was originally for 170 days, then there were four extensions, because the City would not consider new developments due to an impending mayoral election.

To compare timelines, Noblesville officials and Rebar Development presented The Levinson mixed-use project to the Noblesville Common Council on Aug. 28, 2018, and approved the project on Sept. 11, 2018, and The Levinson broke ground on June 12, 2019, and opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 1, 2021.

Chuck McMillan, who would like to do some traveling, called McMillan’s Auto Care’s closing “bittersweet.”

Charlie McMillan, who had only worked full time at one other job, Hare Chevrolet, before taking the job at McMillan’s when his parents took over the station, has a lot of memories from working at the station. But now he is ready for the next chapter. “It was just time … I think it was the end of an era,” he said.

Before vacating, Charlie McMillan and his nephew, Zach Mason, spent weeks sifting through old paperwork, unsold parts inventory, shop tools and auto-repair equipment dating from 1985, trying to decide what to do with everything. Some items went to the dumpster, some items sold and some items were kept. “It was like doing an archeological dig from the first time we opened,” Charlie McMillan said.

Dotty McMillan couldn’t help but feel a little sentimental after they cleared everything out and she saw the empty building and lot. She said, “It looks lonesome when you go by.”

Contact Betsy Reason at Betsy Reason and Charlie McMillan Jr. have a 15-year-old daughter, Addison McMillan, granddaughter of Chuck and Dotty McMillan.