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Thursday, January 21, 2010

VA Tower: 50 Years of Towing & Going Strong

Now, that's inspiring! Here's a profile from of 75-year-old Billy Marrs, who owns Bill's Service Center in Spotsylvania County, Va.:
By Rob Hedelt

THEY don't make many like Billy Marrs anymore.

The hard-working 75-year-old owner and operator of Bill's Service Center in Spotsylvania County has either been fixing cars or running wrecker calls for 50 years, all from two spots just a few hundred yards apart on State Route 3 at Five-Mile Fork.

From the day in 1960 when he opened a full-service Amoco station, Marrs has spent seven days a week repairing cars, fixing flats or towing damaged vehicles.

"Some nights, I'd be out two or three times before sunup," said Marrs. Since 1984 he's made Billy's Service Center exclusively a wrecker business, with son Bill lending a hand.

"It's the nature of the business, and I've loved every minute of it."

He didn't have much down time during the day either. Raising a small number of cattle and his own hay on a little spread off Old Plank Road, where he tinkers with a growing herd of vintage John Deere tractors, Marrs has never had to worry about idle time.

"It's what keeps you young," he said. "I'm not much for sitting around."

Marrs said he was worried about whether he'd be able to make it in the business when he started in 1960, hoping he'd have enough income to pay his part-time help.

"I sweated that first three months," he said. "We'd do anything customers wanted, from washing cars for 50 cents to doing repairs and pumping gas."

Life along State Route 3 was pretty different then.

"There wasn't that much traffic out here," he said. "Mornings and afternoons you'd see people going to work and coming home, but things were slow in the middle of the day."

And of the traffic he saw, "90 percent of it you knew the people, their families and where they lived."

His first wrecker cost him $800. He paid $74,000 for his latest one.

Marrs said one thing hasn't changed--his basic approach of taking calls only from people who want to be towed, and doing everything he can to help them through what's often a difficult time.

"I remember one woman in an accident who tore up her car pretty bad," said Marrs, noting that the woman was upset about the cost. "I told her they make new versions of that car every year, and that the dealer would be glad to sell her one. "But I reminded her that because nobody's making new versions of her, the most important thing was that she wasn't hurt."

Then there was the couple who had an accident at Four-Mile Fork, just after they'd bought that week's groceries.

Instead of leaving them with a week's worth of food to go bad, he simply transferred them and their groceries into his wrecker and drove them home.

"You basically treat people the way you'd want to be treated," he said. "That works out pretty well."

Though he still handles his share of calls, Marrs acknowledges that maneuvering the heavy slings and hooks a wrecker uses isn't as easy as it once was and has left him with some lingering back injuries.

"It helps that Bill works with me in the business and on the farm," said Marrs, also noting the help his daughter, Deborah Marrs Collins, gives him at home.

He said it's been tough to witness sadness, injuries and deaths he's seen on calls, including a wreck many years ago that took several lives on State Route 612.

His most difficult call: "The time a tractor trailer hauling vegetables ran off I-95 down a hillside near the Rappahannock River. We were down the hill loading watermelons, snap beans and more into boxes with a front-end loader" before using three wreckers to haul the truck back up.

The most frequent call in his early years: "People were always flooding those old engines. I'd just pull out my pocket knife, pry the choke open and start 'em up."

Marrs said he enjoyed the early years of running a service station. But when monthly rent shot up by thousands of dollars, it was time for him to find a different business.

"A full-time wrecker business has suited me just fine," said Marrs, who believes he may have the longest run in his trade in the Fredericksburg area. "I hope to keep doing it for a while to come."

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

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