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Monday, February 15, 2010

One Garage, 63 Years & 3 Generations - So Far

Nice profile of this VA tower and family! Here's the story from


Heflin's Garage was a busy spot after it opened on a largely undeveloped stretch of State Route 3 in 1947.

It was one of the few places where tourists headed to the Northern Neck for the weekend could refuel, get their car repaired or ask for a tow.

"That's where I learned everything," said Thad Heflin III, who grew up helping his dad and now runs the family business with help from his son, Thad Heflin IV. "The only gas stations were my father's and Henderson's Grocery down below us. That was it."

Today Heflin's, which moved to Warrenton Road in 1960 when it was displaced by the Blue and Gray Parkway bridge, is the ninth-oldest towing and repair business in Virginia, according to the Virginia Association of Towing & Recovery Operators. It's also among the oldest ones in the country, and is likely to remain so.

"Eventually it will be my turn and privilege to run the family business," said Thad Heflin IV, who has continued family tradition by naming his infant son Thaddeus M. Heflin V.

But all of that lay in the future when Thad Heflin Jr., who'd dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work on nearby farms, came home after World War II looking for work.

He'd learned about motors by watching his father and as an Army Air Corps mechanic working on planes in Australia and the Philippines. He soon landed a job as a mechanic at Beck's Chevrolet on Princess Anne Street, and eventually went into business for himself by opening Heflin's near the farm where he'd grown up.

The business had a two-stall garage at first, plus a convenience store with a snack bar. Later additions included two larger stalls, one for grease jobs and one for trucks. All the towing was done with wreckers Heflin designed and built himself.

"Nowadays you can buy a tow truck for $50,000 to $100,000," said Bobby Burgess, a competitor who ran what's now Interstate Service Center on U.S. 17. "Back then, you made your trucks. You got the body and the winch and the booms, and you had to know welding, how strong it would be."

Burgess remembers Heflin, who died in 1992, as "an icon" in the community, a hard but fair man who earned the respect of everyone who knew him.

"You had to be hard back then," he said. "You get a tractor-trailer turned over, you had to go down there and get with it. You had to get up in the middle of the night in snow or sleet for hours at a time. In the wintertime, he'd work all night long. I've seen him look like death warmed over, come back and sit for a while and then go back out."

But Heflin, never one to show emotion, also had a softer side, said Ed Steckler, who used to work for him in the 1960s and now lives in Fernandina Beach, Fla.

"He gave me a job running wreckers, pumping gas and working on cars when no one else would," said Steckler, who admitted to being "wild" when he was younger. "I didn't have a vehicle, and he found me a '55 Chevy in Triangle. He said to work on it at night, and that's what I did. He taught me a lot. He was a super guy. I probably looked at him as a father figure."

Heflin also found time to be a life member of the Fredericksburg Rescue Squad and Falmouth Fire Department. Thad Heflin III, who was put on his father's payroll when he was 15, said they used to work at some horrible accident scenes until rescue squads began using the Jaws of Life to free people who'd been trapped.

"My father got a lifesaving award for [helping to free the driver] of a tractor-trailer that turned over in Opal," he said. "I took our Mac wrecker. I swung the boom out so my father could go into the truck. The driver's boot had caught around the clutch pedal. We did a lot of that."

Other memorable jobs include being called in to pull a train back onto the tracks near Lafayette Boulevard, and floating a wrecker on a barge in the city reservoir so it could lower a replacement valve to a Navy diver.

Over the years, the Heflins--father, son and grandson--have seen the car repair and wrecker business become more and more technical and specialized. Cars are increasingly computerized, and wreckers now use sophisticated underlifts that barely touch a car at all.

"You have to change with the times," said Thad Heflin III, who buys all of his wreckers. "My father did it, and I try to carry it on."

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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