Palmer’s was started in 1957 by Bill Palmer. At that time, Palmer’s Service Station was at the edge of town at was then the East Y, across from the new Henderson County High School (North Middle). Palmer’s didn’t have a mechanic and service bay, but its attendants did what gas station attendants did in those days: clean customer’s windshields, check their oil, air up tires if necessary.

Palmer’s Commercial

1960 Highway Plan:

Chuck Stinnett: An iconic Henderson c-store chain is in new hands

In 1957, Bill Palmer was a young husband in search of a career.

He had worked as an oil scout for Ashland Oil & Refining Co. in the then-booming oil production industry in and around Henderson County. He briefly tried his hand managing apartments and a taxi operation, but they weren’t to his liking.

So 65 years ago, he started a filling station on Outer Second Street at what was (and is) one of the three primary gateways to Henderson: the East Y.

That was where old U.S. 41 (which at the time used Second Street from Green Street to the East Y) split off from Kentucky 54 (now Kentucky 351) on the edge of town, just past the newly consolidated Henderson County High School (now North Middle School). He called it Palmer’s Service Station.

Palmer’s didn’t have a mechanic and service bay, but its attendants did what gas station attendants did in those days: clean customer’s windshields, check their oil, air up tires if necessary.

Over time, Palmer would open other locations or go into partnerships, such as with Lloyd Mullins at the Palmer-Mullins Service Station at 330 Atkinson St.

Palmer proved to be a good businessman. He quickly associated with Zephyr, a Midwestern distributor of gasoline and related products; by 1971, he owned or was partners in seven Zephyr-branded filling stations around Henderson as well as in Webster and McLean counties. His operations were selling five million gallons of gasoline a year, back when gas sold for about 36 cents a gallon.

The business would change rapidly in the years that followed.

The oil embargo resulted in gas shortages and long lines. Gas prices more than tripled over the course of a decade.

Service stations — which in earlier years offered vending machines for candy bars or soda pop, but not much more besides cans of motor oil and, perhaps, a sheaf of men’s combs —gave way to convenience stores with self-service pumps. Palmer’s Service Station transitioned into Palmer’s Market; other locations were converted to EZ Shops.

Palmer expanded his business to include a bulk plant, delivering quantities of fuel and lubricants to farmers, oil field crews and coal mines. And his daughter Mary Anne joined the business along with her husband, Tony Gonnella.

“I ran the cash register at Palmer’s Market,” Mary Anne said. “I did it for several years.” Her father said it would help her learn the business, especially working with Palmer’s manager Charlie Cain, who she said was “more or less like a partner with my dad.”
With the construction of the U.S. 41-Bypass in the early 1960s, followed by its connection with the Pennyrile Parkway (now Interstate 69) a decade later, the old East Y was transformed.

But Palmer’s Market withstood the changes and thrived. It became a sort of Henderson landmark.

“When I was a kid, and still today, when people say, ‘Where do you want to meet?’ it’s ‘Palmer’s at the East Y,’” Tony Gonnella said.

Bill Palmer became a sort of landmark himself. In 1993, his enterprises were named the Henderson Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year.

There are plenty of memories from the old days.

“There was block ice back then” Mary Anne said.

“All the stores had ice houses” Tony said. He recalled working men who would put a 30-pound block of ice in their coolers on Monday that would still be a substantial chunk of ice for keeping their lunch cold at the end of the week.

Back in the 1960s, when America was still crazy about Westerns on TV, Bill Palmer cooked up a promotion in which he would give away a pony to a lucky customer at his filling station in Providence; Mary Anne recalls a photo showing a massive crowd on hand for the event.

Another time, Sureway supermarkets partnered with Palmer’s to offer certificates for free gasoline instead of a holiday ham or turkey.

Henderson County’s oil fields boomed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and exploration and production crews called Palmer Oil at all hours for delivery of fuel and lubricants.

When the state Department of Highways made plans in the late ’70s to widen Outer Second Street to five lanes, Palmer was alarmed because plans called for no entrance or exit for Palmer’s Market from Second Street itself. Tony said his father-in-law’s friend, attorney Bill Deep, went to work to make sure that plans were changed and motorists could pull in and out.

In Whitesville in southern Daviess County, Palmer’s once owned a station that went by the name of Bryant’s Zephyr; the station is long gone, but today on its site (following a well-documented environmental cleanup) stands Zephyr Villas apartments, complete with a replica of a vintage Zephyr sign.

And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, some folks panicked and were so anxious to get a tankful of gasoline, a line of cars formed at the EZ Shop at Clay and Atkinson that blocked traffic on Atkinson Street. The family was forced to temporarily close the store in the interest of maintaining traffic flow.

“If it was the end of the world,” Tony mused, “the last thing on my mind would be getting a gallon of gas.”

There were more local scares as well. “Robberies, we had a few,” Mary Anne said. “But nobody got hurt.”

“It’s one of your nightmares in retail,” Tony said

Then there are the car-vs.-store collisions. The EZ Shop at Clay and Atkinson “probably got hit four times,” Tony said.

“It opened in 1980,” he recalled. “The first week, I was at the cash register when a guy came through Clay Street” and through the front wall of the new store. “It pinned a girl (working behind the counter) behind the cash register, but she wasn’t hurt.”

“We got so used to it that we would ask two questions” when alerted to an incident, Mary Anne said. “First, is everybody alright? And second, can you see the car inside the building — the hood?”

Most dramatic and worrisome was an incident in February 2017 when a young man was being pursued through town by police. At the end of the chase, he drove through the gas pumps and through the front wall of the EZ Shop at Clay Street and U.S. 41-South, which immediately caught fire. No one was injured, and the clerk wisely shut off fuel to the gas pumps. In the end, the building had to be demolished and the newest EZ Shop built in its place.

Over the years, Palmer’s Market and the six EZ Shops in Henderson, Sebree, Providence and Madisonville became regular stops for regular customers to fill up, pick up morning coffee and donuts, a sandwich or, perhaps, lottery tickets or a six-pack of beer.

Now, after nearly 65 years in the Palmer and Gonnella families, the enterprise is in new hands.

‘Same-generation guys’

At roughly the same time Palmer was building up his business, the Eveland family was building an even bigger chain of filling stations and c-stores out of their base in Madisonville.

“From my perspective, Mary Anne’s father, Bill, and my father, Vern, were same-generation guys,” Barry Eveland said. “They’re both gone now. My father was in the gasoline business. He kind of grew up in it in Orlando in the 1950s.”

In 1974, Vern Eveland bought a Madisonville-based gas station company. “I graduated college in Florida, and he said, how about a job in Kentucky. I said okay. So I moved to Madisonville in 1974. I married a girl from Murray and we had four children.”

As Bill Palmer started the transition from full-service filling stations to convenience stores with self-service gas pumps in the Henderson area, the Eveland family’s Rocket Oil Co. was doing the same in the Madisonville area.

“When I moved here in 1974, there were no convenience stores,” Barry said. “They were we-pump-it-for-you gas stations. The c-store concept was just beginning to take root. Curtis McCoy, who we bought our business from, was building convenience stores called Kwik-Piks.”

Over time, the Evelands evolved their own operations into c-stores and adopted the Ideal Market brand.

“The Palmers and Evelands were kind of on parallel paths,” Barry Eveland said. “Very similar.”

Both families’ companies affiliated with Zephyr, and a Palmer’s EZ Shop was even located across the highway from an Eveland location in Madisonville. The two families got to know one another.

“They’re wonderful people,” Eveland said. “We’ve been friends for a long time.”

“They were good competitors,” Tony Gonella said.

Once, a young Barry Eveland approached Bill Palmer about buying him out.

“Bill was a real gentleman and let him down easy about it,” Tony Gonnella said

“It had to be completely cringeworthy,” Eveland said with a laugh. “He was gracious.”

But he didn’t let go of the hope of acquiring the Palmer operations, especially when his son Tom joined the business as a third-generation member.

“A few years back, I said, if you all ever decide you’ve had enough of this, with Tom aboard, our horizon is fairly long and we would like to grow,” Barry Eveland said. “It just happened that their time of life was such, they would like to do that.

In more recent years, a formal proposal came through. “We talked with them for a long time” Tony Gonnella said. “They’re good people” — and no younger people in the Palmer or Gonnella family were interested in taking on the family business.

“We have similar philosophies,” Barry Eveland said. “We’re both family businesses. We try run a business for team members who are part of the family. We treat people well. It’s been a great combination. I think Tony and Mary Anne are off to the next phase of their lives and we’re very pleased to add these stores to the ones we already have.

“For me it was more of a kind of an emotional purchase, having known them all those years, having respected Mr. Palmer,” he said. “It was a very nice marriage. For me, it was more than just a cold business move.”

“We’ve admired their family business, and geographically it was a perfect match,” Barry’s son Tom, who is now company president, said.

The acquisition of Palmer’s and the EZ Shops last year increased the number of the Evelands’ convenience store locations in Western Kentucky from 21 to 28 (plus a couple of Subway shops).

The Evelands this year began rebranding the EZ Shops to the Ideal Market and Marathon petroleum brands.

The great unknown is Palmer’s Market. “It’s a wonderful location” at the U.S. 41 and Kentucky 351/Second Street interchange, Barry Eveland said. “They have great employees and take care of their customers there”

But the current Palmer’s Market is undersized by today’s standards. “Nothing lasts forever,” Eveland said. “We can improve it by knocking it down and building a larger store with more pumps.” The family has acquired property behind Palmer’s that would allow for a bigger operation to be built there.

“The holdup there, the gorilla in the room, is the highway widening” planned on Kentucky 351, Tom Eveland said. The stretch of roadway popularly known as the U.S. 41-Bypass beside Palmer’s within a few years will be converted to Interstate 69. The Kentucky 351 interchange will be entirely reconstructed, and plans call for installing two roundabouts on either side of the Palmer’s property (as well as a third on the other side of the rebuilt interchange).

“We’ve got to see what that looks like,” he said. “Hopefully it works out. I’m optimistic.”

In the meantime, he said, “We’re excited about taking our brand to the Henderson market and the other markets they operate in.”


Gleaner: An iconic Henderson c-store chain is in new hands

Kentucky Department of Highways – Henderson By Pass – State Project No 50-299 Date 1960