The Roberts of Roland
Arthur Roberts, center, in 1949 with his sons Roy, left, and Melvin at their first service station and wrecker service.
There's no place like home
for the Roberts of Roland
Many children of large families decide to live far away from where they were born. Not the six sons and three daughters of Arthur and Bess Roberts of Roland, Okla. All of the nine children were born near Roland and moved there in 1943. All nine of them grew up in Roland and have lived within five miles of each other all their lives.
Arthur Hilton Roberts of Georgia and Bess Czarnikow of Fort Smith were married in 1923. They were living in the Blue Mouse community a few miles north of Roland when their children were born, starting in 1924. Every two or three years after that, a new brother or sister arrived. They were named Melvin, Ralph, Roy, Delmas, Betty, Doris, Kenny, Earl and Clarice.
Of the nine, five are living. Roy is 88; Delmas, 85; Doris, 81; Earl, 75; and Clarice, 72.
While Arthur and Bess were raising their large family, he scrambled to find farm, factory and mechanic work to provide for them.
He was working at a Fort Smith factory when sons Melvin and Ralph joined the Navy during World War II. While the brothers were overseas, they sent their mother money to save for them. When they returned home in late 1945, they used the $600 they had saved to go in with their dad to buy property in Moffett, Okla., that had been a gas station, grocery store and dance hall.
After converting the dance hall into an automotive garage, Roberts and Sons opened in the spring of 1946, offering gasoline, groceries and mechanic service.
Roy joined his dad and brothers in the company in 1948 and still sometimes jokes about his family having, at one time, the only automotive garage they or their customers had ever seen with a hardwood floor.
Roy and his son Billy Gene now own the family's original Moffett property and the salvage and auto parts businesses it has become.
While there was still a gas station on the property, Earl, the youngest of the six brothers, remembers being trained by his dad to furnish complete service for gas station customers. He was taught not only to fill a customer's gas tank, but to wash the windshield, check the oil and tires and provide travel information for the many travelers they served – especially those on their way to Oklahoma City and farther west.
In 1949, Roberts and Sons expanded their automotive business into Fort Smith by buying a Sinclair Service Station at North 10th and A Streets, which was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The station also operated 24-hour wrecker service and Roy became the station's “all-night man,” often with the help of his younger brother Earl.
Roy and Earl still laugh when they recall the station's first wrecker, an old Ford truck with no doors or back window glass, and the many adventures and characters they encountered while working all-night shifts together.
The 24-hour station also had contracts with many prominent local businesses – such as Randall Ford, Beckman Dairy, Johnston’s Flowers and B&L Amusement – to clean, detail and service their fleets.
“That's how Roy was able to stay awake all night,” Earl recalled. He said the frequent, late-night calls for tow service the station received also kept them both on the alert.
In 1952, a fire destroyed the family's uninsured Moffett property but the family built back the service station and garage and continued to develop its salvage yard.
In 1956, Roberts and Sons opened an automotive parts store at 1520 Towson Avenue in Fort Smith with a full line of new auto parts.
“All of us were in both family businesses together until 1966, after mom died,” Earl explained. “Then, we split the two businesses with Kenny, Delmas, Melvin and me taking over the new auto parts business, and Ralph, Roy and Dad keeping the salvage businesses in Moffett. All of us still had the 24-hour service station together at 10th and A, until we sold it in the late 1960s to a non-family member who worked for us.”
“I hated to see it go,” Roy said.
The Roberts sold the Fort Smith auto parts business in the early 1980s, when several of the brothers were already beginning to start their own separate businesses. Melvin, Delmas and Earl got their real estate licenses in the early 1970s and worked together for awhile before opening their own businesses. Earl opened his Hilton Insurance and Real Estate agency on Ray Fine Boulevard in Roland in 1978.
Roy and his son Billy Gene have co-owned Roberts Salvage since 1992. This year is the 70th anniversary of the original family business. During that time, the business has survived fires that destroyed its main buildings in 1952 and 1964 – plus five major floods, including two last year that inundated everything on the property.
Roy and his wife, Betty, both in their late 80s, still work every week at the business Roy helped his dad start. In 2013, they opened a second location, Roberts Parts-U-Pick, a self-service automobile recycling center where customers can save money by bringing their own tools and removing parts they need from vehicles at the site.
The Roberts sisters – Betty, Doris and Clarice – also helped in the family's various businesses after school while they were growing up. They went on to become successful on their own. Betty and Doris had long careers in banking at First National Bank. Clarice has owned floral and hair salon businesses.
The descendants of Arthur and Bess Roberts now number around 100, Earl estimates, and are very diverse in ages and professions that include pastors, teachers, doctors, physical therapists, barbers, surgeons, dentists, Realtors and insurance professionals. Others are still outstanding high school and college students.
Many attended and graduated from Roland High School, including Earl.
The school did not have a statue of its Ranger mascot. So, when Earl happened across a large statue of a ranger figure on horseback earlier this year, he bought it. He and his sons donated it to the Roland Alumni Association, which gave it to the school, where it is now proudly displayed.
- By Linda Seubold
This story appears in the June 2016 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.