Henderson history: Gas prices skyrocketed as speed limits dropped to 55 mph

HENDERSON, Ky. − Motorists in this area began feeling the energy crunch pinch in late February 1974 – just in time for the national 55 mph speed limit.

Warnings had started months earlier. The Gleaner of May 11, 1973 reported gasoline shortages were threatening to close some independent stations.

“Things are getting tighter,” said William Palmer, owner of one of Henderson’s largest independent gas distributors. Palmer Oil owned five Zephyr gas stations here and he said two of them might have to close.

Suppliers had put Palmer on a quota of 80 percent of what he’d bought in 1972.

Richard Alves, owner of Alves Oil Co., which supplied local Union 76 stations, said his supply had been cut 20 percent.

“All of the independents have been on rationing for quite a while,” he said.

But that was in May of 1973. The full weight of the hammer didn’t fall until October of that year when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries instituted an embargo as punishment for the United States providing $2.2 billion of emergency aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

The price of oil jumped from $2.90 a barrel to $11.65 a barrel by January 1974, according to a history by the Federal Reserve of the first energy crisis. The embargo officially ended in March 1974, but the high prices remained.

The Gleaner of Feb. 27, 1974, quoted several gas distributors predicting a shortage. “Several area service stations are out of gasoline and others have almost exhausted their allocation for the month,” according to a survey done the previous day by The Gleaner.

The first energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the imposition of 55-mph speed limits on highways as of March 1, 1974. This sign was installed on what is now Interstate 69 in mid-February and motorists were still zooming by at 70 mph.
The first energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the imposition of 55-mph speed limits on highways as of March 1, 1974. This sign was installed on what is now Interstate 69 in mid-February and motorists were still zooming by at 70 mph.

“Officials of three gasoline distributors who supply numerous local service stations agree that motorists will have more difficulty obtaining gas here during the next couple of days than since the energy crisis began.”

Keith Haynes, an official with the Standard Oil bulk plant here, said Henderson was running on fumes. “The next few days are going to be worse than before. The people of Henderson haven’t felt the crunch yet. It’s just taking a little time.”

The problem was particularly severe in rural areas, which hadn’t seen deliveries of Standard Oil gas since Feb. 20. Standard Oil supplied three major gas stations in Henderson and one of them was open only three hours a day.

Another station might be forced to close within two days.

Louis Bonnell, wholesale territory representative for Sun Oil Co., said most Sunoco stations had been without deliveries for three days, although one hadn’t gotten a refill for 10 days. Like Haynes, he expected the situation to get worse very quickly.

Associated Press stories in the Feb. 27 Gleaner reported conditions were already worse elsewhere. Mandatory gas rationing was in effect in New York and Delaware while Rhode Island was instituting a voluntary allocation system.

Coal miners in southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia were unable to get to work because they had no gas to commute. Mines producing about 100,000 tons of coal daily were closed Feb. 26.

“We have just about reached the point of absurdity in the energy crisis when producers of one fuel – coal – can’t get to work because of inadequate supplies of another fuel – gas,” said United Mine Workers President Arnold Miller.

According to a spokesman at Mobile Oil, “the Oil & Gas Journal said the energy crisis is over and predicted there was a better than even chance the nation could avoid gasoline rationing.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana wasn’t so sure. He had just spent 35 minutes waiting to fill up. “The shortage remains and so does the crisis.”

The Gleaner of March 2 reported local gas prices “zoomed upward” on March 1 – the day the new nationwide 55 mph speed limit went into effect.

To the modern eye, of course, the prices look highly desirable. But to Henderson residents of 1974 you’d have thought they were paying premium bourbon prices for gasoline. Increases ranged from two cents per gallon to slightly more than 10 cents.

As of mid-afternoon March 1, prices ranged from 47.3 cents per gallon for regular to a high of 62.9 for premium. “And some stations were not pumping at all.”

Arnold Gibson, operator of the Ashland station at 835 N. Green, had to raise his prices twice in one day because of a mid-morning phone call from his supplier about an upcoming jump. That’s why he raised his price to 62.9 cents per gallon for premium.

The self-serve Shell station at Second and Green streets had the lowest price. Regular was selling for 47.3 cents a gallon and “cars were lined up throughout the afternoon.”

A sign allowed a maximum purchase of 10 gallons per customer, but many customers were ignoring it.One unnamed station operator predicted “regular will reach about 65 cents a gallon and premium will go to about 75 cents before it levels off.”

Gas prices fluctuated through the 1970s and hit another rough spot in 1978-79 during the second energy crisis, which was brought on by cutbacks in production by Iran after the revolution there.

Local residents coped as best they could. Signs for the 55-mph speed limit began going up in February but a photo of one in The Gleaner of Feb. 15 depicted cars zooming by at 70 mph. That was to end March 1, though.

The Gleaner of Feb. 28 interviewed local law enforcement officials; the story said the Kentucky State Police and the Henderson Police Department planned to enforce it like any other speed limit.

Sheriff J.T. Southard, however, was telling his deputies to give motorists a week-long grace period. “We won’t write a ticket unless they’re completely out of line during the first week,” he said. “Then, after the first week, we’ll go to regular enforcement.

“We want to work with the people and give them a chance to get used to it and get slowed down.”

Sgt. Donald Workins, spokesman for the Kentucky State Police, said “even on the interstate roads the average speed of most motorists has dropped on a voluntary basis.”

KSP Trooper Dale Parker was interviewed for the March 2 Gleaner, and he agreed with that comment. “The trend to slower driving began last November,” he said. “Apparently, a lot of people were becoming conscious of the energy crisis then.”

As for the first day of enforcing the new limit, he said he’d ticketed only three drivers, all of whom were driving between 72 and 75 mph.

“It seems that the great majority of drivers were staying right around the 55-mph limit. In fact, there were a surprising number driving even below that.”


The First Presbyterian Church was getting ready to install recreational facilities in the backyard of the parsonage on Washington Street, according to The Gleaner of March 1, 1924.

“Two tennis courts will be installed and also a croquet ground will be laid off, all of which will be for the use and benefit of the young people of this church and their guests and also the Boy Scouts.”


A poll conducted by the journalism class at Hebbardsville High School showed high interest in a consolidated countywide high school – but 68 percent were opposed to merging with the city school system, according to The Gleaner of March 2, 1949.

Those results were confirmed in a public meeting a week later, when citizens attending favored a consolidated high school by a factor of 10 to 1, according to The Gleaner of March 9.

The Gleaner of March 13 reported the city school system was paying about $10,000 annually to allow rural residents to attend city schools. Much of that money paid for about 40 rural students to attend Douglass High School – which was the only Black high school in the county.

State law at that time prohibited white and Black students to attend the same school.

Corydon High School was destroyed by fire in January 1952, prompting the county school district to speed up plans for a central high school. Up until then it had maintained eight high schools. Henderson County High School (now North Middle School) was built in 1954. It merged with Henderson City High under a mandate by the state Board of Education on June 15, 1976.


Harold E. Helsey, 91, had the twin distinctions of being Kentucky’s oldest and longest practicing chiropractor, according to The Gleaner of March 7, 1999.

He first set up shop in 1930 in what now is Field & Main Bank but in later years maintained an office in Citi-Center Mall. He was working only part-time by that point, but he was in his office six days a week from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.Helsley died April 13, 2001, and is buried in Fairmont Cemetery. His obituary says he practiced more than 70 years.

Readers of The Gleaner can reach Frank Boyett at YesNews42@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Henderson history: Gas prices skyrocketed as speed limits dropped