Up Long Before Sunrise, Alta Vista Native Still Going Strong Serving Rural Hometown
It’s four in the morning need to be at work an hour down the road, tire is flat, oil’s low.”
No worry Virgil Ziegler is at McDiffett Service on Main Street in Alta Vista ready to help out.
Modern days’ self-service, nearly impossible to get tires fixed, oil checked, gas filled, yet those old traditions do still exist.
“I’m up at 3:30, have my oatmeal and here so people with city jobs get there on time,” Ziegler said.
Serving his Wabaunsee County hometown has been the life for the energetic, heathy, outgoing 89-year-old most congenially acknowledged as Virgil.
“I live in the same house where I was born, never got far from home,” Ziegler smiled. “Worked in the garage business, grocery stores and mowed lawns, it’s been my life.”
Youngest child of carpenter John and Alice (Strom) Ziegler, older sisters Mary Lou (Wainwright) and Helen (McDiffett) have passed away. “I’m still going strong, never had any ill health to speak of, ready to get more work done,” Virgil said.
Graduating from Alta Vista High School in 1949 with a class of 15 students, “there are only three of us left,” he counted.
Out of school, Ziegler worked at the post office. Then the drug store, a grocery store and got his start pumping gas, fixing tires, car repair at Dierking Garage.
“Perry Patterson and I worked there at the same time, became partners, and bought it out. Then we were in the grocery business together, too,” Virgil reflected.
There’ve been plenty of changes in the rural community during his lifetime. “Used to be lots more people and every building up and down the street had a business,” Ziegler tallied.
Population peak was estimated at about a thousand, with only half that many living in Alta Vista today, he speculated.
When Virgil was growing up businesses included as many as seven filling stations, five grocery stores and five churches. There were two feed stores, an elevator, two barber shops, a couple beauticians and two cafes.
“Of course, the drug store, doctor, dentist, implement dealer, hardware store, lumberyard, blacksmith, locker plant, even a movie theatre,” Ziegler reminisced. “Wolgast Lumber is the only one still in business with the same family.
“Oh yes, there was Abbott Furniture Store and they had the funeral home, too,” he continued. “In those days for some reason it was common for furniture store owners to also be the undertakers.”
Before his time, there were two banks, but he only remembers Alta Vista State Bank operated by the Clark family. “Of course it has new owners now too,” Virgil added.
Closing the high school after the class of 1969 was a community loss. “Fortunately, we still have the grade school which keeps people coming to town,” Ziegler appreciated.
Uncountable the number of flat tires he’s fixed, but Virgil sure knows how. “It’s easier than before,” he verified. “Car repair is another story. I was able to get most car problems back in running order during those times, but not now. All the electronics and gadgets on today’s cars are more than I can do.”
Logically vehicles have always been close to his heart. “My first car was a used Model A Ford, but I’ve had a lot of vehicles over the years,” Virgil admitted. “Working for Dierking a Chrysler, Plymouth dealership, there was always a car coming in that I just had to have.
“I never put over 10,000 miles on a car until I got a different one,” he said. “I do my best to take care of my vehicles and always keep them in the garage at home when I’m not driving.”
Contending he doesn’t use his 1956 Chrysler enough, Ziegler drives his 2018 Nissan pickup two blocks to and from work. “Oh I do get out of town once in a while,” he noted.
Operating service stations as owner and partner through the years, Ziegler now works for the business operated by his nephew’s family. “I open in the morning, stay until 8 o’clock, then come back around noon so they can get dinner,” he said.
Alan McDiffett usually works at the station throughout the day. “I help out too when I’m needed,” Virgil grinned.
Grocery business has changed too since Ziegler began working, progressing to partnership, ownership, and construction of a new building. “I did checkout, never much at the meat counter, but had to stock shelves, take care of customers,” he remarked. “We delivered groceries around town twice every day.”
Store was closed on Sunday, so Saturday was always the busiest. “Farmers came to town, brought their eggs and cream in to sell, and did their shopping,” Virgil remembered fondly. “We stayed open late. There was a free outside movie and the country folks would often shop after that.”
Although he sold the modern grocery business a number of years ago, Ziegler has worked for different owners occasionally.
“The grocery store is open again now, and seems to be doing well. I sure hope so,” Virgil commented.
Initially assisting his nephews in mowing lawns, Ziegler has been mowing the Alta Vista Cemetery longer than he remembers. “Started out with a push mower and then hand cut and pulled grass around the tombstones,” Virgil said. “Even with a riding mower now it takes 12 to 15 hours plus that much more time with the weed eater.
“Depending on the rains, I usually mow at least twice a month sometimes more often,” he tallied. “I operated the weed eater myself too until about a year ago, but hire others to do that now.”
Mowers are brought into the service station for blade sharpening and maintenance. “We’ve had to buy a couple mowers over the years. But they last a long time because I take care of them,” Virgil said.
Playing on the baseball team during school, Ziegler has been an avid bowler through the years. “I’ve bowled on leagues at both Council Grove and Manhattan,” he related.
A confirmed bachelor, Ziegler isn’t sure the reason for his fit and vim longevity. “It might be in my genes somewhat, my cousin over at Dwight is 102-years-old,” Virgil related. “I’ve always kept busy with different jobs. Start out with my oatmeal, cook my own dinner, usually fried beef, maybe potatoes, and never eat supper.”
No slowdown in sight for one of Alta Vista’s oldest, most visible, highly appreciated native sons. “I just get up, keep going and usually have a good night’s sleep,” Virgil Ziegler said.
Familiar pose as Virgil Ziegler, 89, is ready to pump fuel and repair tires at McDiffett Service in Alta Vista. (Jeff Ginnett photo)