Longtime business owner laments some of the changes Grafton has seen
To say Roger “Moose” Musbach is old school is an understatement.
The longtime proprietor of Moose’s Service, 1435 Wisconsin Ave., Grafton, has seen a lot of changes in the service business and the business community that has been part of his life for nearly 50 years.
“It’s been a good life, but it is time for me to get out. I am a one-man operation and I just can’t handle it by myself anymore,” Musbach said.
“I could turn the business over to my son, but I wouldn’t want to subject him to that kind of punishment.”
The future of Musbach’s property is caught in the middle of evolving plans to redefine Grafton’s central business district.
The service station has been granted grandfather status to continue on the site, but village officials have said they would hold any future owner to stricter standards.
Musbach said he has had several prospective buyers for the property, but in one case financing fell through and in another Village of Grafton officials failed to endorse plans for the site.
The latest complication for the property came this week when Musbach withdrew plans to sell the site to an owner who wanted to erect an oil-change franchise.
The village’s planning staff has ruled the zoning code would not allow such a use.
The property includes a main building erected in 1955, a metal storage building and a distinctive log shed moved from across the street.
Moose’s was once the classic service station, dominated by gasoline pumps, tire displays and busy automotive service bays.
Now, the business is virtually stripped of all the equipment.
“I sold or donated almost all the tools and equipment I had. I’m just keeping a few of the tools so I can do a little work from my house,” Musbach said.
“The days of small, family-run shops are over. All of the automotive equipment now is so expensive, and everything is computerized. I don’t even know how to turn on a computer.”
As young man, Musbach went to Milwaukee School of Engineering and studied mechanical engineering.
“I would be rich today if I had stuck with it, but I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life behind a desk. Money wasn’t as important to me as liking what I was doing, and I have met a lot of really nice people,” he said.
Musbach started working at the station in March of 1960, and bought the business in 1972.
Originally a Pure Oil gas station, it was eventually converted to Union Oil station.
“We were pretty busy. There was a time when we would sell thousands of tires a year,” Musbach said.
According to plans filed long ago with the village, the site was designed to handle as many as 200 people a day.
Musbach admits the shop hasn’t seen anything close to that number for many years.
The transition away from a service station began in 1998, when Musbach took out the gas pumps and storage tanks.
“They were old, steel tanks and they didn’t have the kind of monitoring equipment the state now requires. I realized it wouldn’t be worth the money to put in
new tanks, so we took the old ones out and stopped selling gas,” he said.
“It took until 2005 to satisfy the State of Wisconsin that everything was done the way they require so we could get what they call closure on the issue.”
When his head mechanic moved away five years ago, Musbach discontinued all but the most basic automotive work.
He suffered a heart attack about two years ago, requiring bypass surgery.
“After that, I haven’t been able to reach over my head and work on the cars like I needed to,” Musbach said.
But even before that, the business had concentrated largely on small engines used in lawn-care equipment.
“I’ve developed some very loyal customers, but unfortunately three-quarters of them were older than me and a lot of them are dying off now,” said Musbach, who turns 70 Thursday.
“It used to be that all of our business was done on a handshake. People would bring in a lawn mower or garden tractor and say, ‘You don’t have to call with an estimate. Just fix it, and if you can’t fix it, bring a new one over. I trust you,’” he said.
Some of his current customers are members of families that have been coming to him for three generations.
That kind of customer relationship is lost with most modern businesses, Musbach said.
“Today, everything is about price. That’s how businesses like Home Depot make it, by shaving an extra $20 off the price. The small guy can’t compete.
“They say what goes around comes around, but I don’t know if that is something that is going to change,” he said.
He looked back wistfully at the Grafton of old, lamenting what has been lost.
“There was a time when the village had all sorts of family businesses, including two meat markets and even a department store,” Musbach said.
“I understand the village is trying to upgrade the business district, which is fine, but I am afraid the downtown is just going to become a restaurant district with very little business.”
Musbach said the one thing he will miss is the camaraderie that came with being a cornerstone business in the community.
“Every morning, we have the same seven or eight guys showing up for coffee. It got to the point where I gave them a key and they have the coffee ready by the time I get in,” he said.
His coffee cronies have even posted a sign inside the shop — “What happens in the garage stays in the garage.”
Musbach said he has no great plans for life after the shop closes.
“I would like to do a little woodworking, but I am sure my wife has some plans for me,” he said.
AFTER 50 YEARS in downtown Grafton, Roger “Moose” Musbach is getting ready to close his business, Moose’s Service. Plans for the Wisconsin Avenue property are still undetermined. Photo by Mark Jaeger