A mainstay in the small town of Portersville, Pennsylvania, during the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s, Prior’s Service Station and Truck Stop was the brainchild of one man–an unusually driven man–Orlo L. Prior.
Prior was born on June 8, 1883, the son of Artemus and Martha Birch Prior, and the oldest of six children on a working farm in Ashtabula County, Ohio. From an early age, he showed his determination to learn and to make a life for himself away from the family farm. At a time when higher education was uncommon among the working class, Prior completed college at New Lyme Institute in South New Lyme, Ohio in 1903.
Prior married the former Sadie J. Wise and moved to Cleveland. He began a lucrative sales career, beginning with Underwood typewriters and moving on to Acme and Maccar trucks. He eventually became involved in transportation services for the dairy industry as manager of Milk Cartage Company, located in Orwell, Ohio.
As the trucking industry grew, Prior immersed himself in maps of northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania with the idea of discovering the most efficient routes for travelers and trucks. He couldn’t help but focus on the tiny town of Portersville that sat quite near the junction of U.S. Route 19, a major north-south artery, and U.S. Route 422, an east-west artery.
Prior first set up business on old Route 19–now West Park Road. He serviced trucks and travelers with several gas pumps, a small restaurant, a garage, and a dormitory for over-the-road truck drivers.
Even though his business was successful, Prior was not one to rest on his laurels. He continued to anticipate business trends and the changes accompanying them. So, when in the spring of 1939 the state of Pennsylvania announced that Route 19 would be completely closed from Portersville north to the Lawrence County line for reconstruction, Prior was unperturbed. He was well aware that the planned changes to the highway would eventually boost his business.
Prior had wisely invested in a new piece of property across the highway from his current location. On September 28, 1939, the entire town turned out to celebrate the opening of the new and improved road. Prior himself took this opportunity to showcase what he’d been waiting months to reveal: his new restaurant.
Described as “the last word in ultra-modern dining places,” the restaurant served plate chicken dinners for 50 cents and full 3-course chicken dinners for 75 cents in an atmosphere of air-conditioned luxury. For private parties, the restaurant boasted the cozy Colonial Room, complete with a wood-burning fireplace.
Prior proudly entertained members of the State Department of Transportation at the restaurant on the day of the celebration. Everyone had a wonderful time.
Soon after the opening of the new restaurant an unexpected tragedy occurred at Prior’s garage. On the afternoon of March 19, 1941, a spark from an acetylene torch caused an explosion in the garage. The flames spread quickly across the oily floors to engulf three tractor trucks, an automobile, and a significant amount of equipment. Even though four fire companies responded to the blaze, they were hindered by lack of water. The Butler Eagle reported a damage estimate of nearly $85,000.
Prior remained undaunted. He continued to use the addition to the garage (which had not sustained much damage because of its fire-resistant nature), while also supervising the construction of a new service station and garage across Route 19, next to the restaurant.
As usual, Prior’s new facility was grander than the previous one. Customers were offered a choice of seven brands of gas, including “Prior’s Special Gas,” which was 2 to 4 cents per gallon cheaper than the national brands.
Prior’s complex was the heart of Portersville throughout the 1940’s and 50’s and into the 60’s. Not only did it attract travelers and truck drivers from far and wide, but it employed large numbers of local residents as truck drivers and mechanics, cooks, waitresses, and service station attendants.
Orlo Prior passed away at age seventy-three on December 22, 1956. He was described succinctly by the Butler Eagle as an “unusually driven man determined to become a success.”
Prior’s successful business ventures continued under his son-in-law, E.D. Johnson. As late as 1962, Orlo L. Prior, Inc. was hauling milk from eleven western Pennsylvania counties to Allegheny County. The transport firm employed fifty-two persons, and had an inventory of thirty-eight tractors, forty-four stainless steel tank trailers, and five refrigerated vans.
Portersville continued to change as the years went by though. Interstate 79 opened in northern Butler County in 1965. Many travelers and truck drivers now passed the Portersville exit without stopping. As travel became quicker and more efficient, the need for Prior’s services became less and less. Prior’s empire officially dissolved in 1972.
Photos in this article courtesy of the Hall family. For more information on Prior’s, visit Lancaster Township History Center, 113 Kings Alley, Harmony, PA. Hours: Tues. and Thurs. 1 p.m to 3 p.m., or by appointment. (724)368-8362