Mad about metric

The Canadian Press
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Vintage gas pump remains symbol of defiance

Laurie Carritt holds a photo of his father, Art Carritt, standing at the pumps at the Eckville Super Service in Eckville, Alta., in 1984 when his pumps were sealed by the Government of Canada after he refused to convert to metric measurement. — Photo by The Canadian Press

Probably the last gas pump in Canada to issue fuel by the gallon still stands guard in a business whose owners were threatened with jail for refusing to convert to metric.

Almost 30 years have passed since that fateful Friday afternoon when two officers from Canada’s Department of Weights and Measures sealed the pumps at the Eckville Super Station, jointly owned by Art Carritt and two of his sons, Roy and Laurie.

There was no warning, said Laurie Carritt, who became sole proprietor when his father died in 2010. Roy had died eight years earlier.

The Canadian government, under direction of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, had started converting the country to metric in 1970.

There was a period of transition during which the Imperial system was to be replaced with metric on everything, including road signs, weather data, groceries, fuel sales and anything else that could be quantified in gallons, pounds, square feet, Fahrenheit degrees or calories.

The Carritt family’s twin fuel pumps, first installed in 1941 when the store was a Case dealership, were not physically capable of being converted.

While gas pumps throughout the country had long ago made the switch, Eckville Super Service continued to sell fuel by the gallon.

So, on a summer afternoon in 1984, when the “metric police” came to shut them down, Art Carritt dug in.

He phoned the department and said he was going to cut the seals himself at 1 p.m. on the following Monday.

The person at the other end of the line said he better not or he would go to jail.

That’s fine, said Carritt, who then called as many news desks as he could think of while organizing a group of locals to line up at the pumps in preparation for the crime he was about to commit.

It didn’t happen.

At about 11 a.m. that Monday, with reporters and photographers from across the country gathering for the big showdown, a man from Weights and Measures came and broke the seals, says Laurie.

He didn’t say anything. He just got into his pickup truck and drove away.

And Art and his boys continued selling gas by the gallon.

Preserved pumps

Seated at his desk overlooking Eckville’s town centre, Laurie says it wasn’t just the cost, it was the politics.

His dad had been keeping a close watch on policy and legislation in both Canada and the United States.

While Trudeau and his crew justified the conversion by stating they wanted to get the jump on the U.S., Art Carritt already knew from reading government postings that, south of the border, all notions of going metric had been dumped.

He was further distressed with the amount of cheating he discovered by conducting his own measurements of consumer goods such as coffee and cola.

A quart was a quart and a pound was a pound, but the two-litre bottles of pop were two millilitres short of full measure and the little bags of coffee that had formerly been sold by the pound contained a lot less than 454 grams, says Laurie.

Of course, it couldn’t last forever.

The two old gas pumps were sitting on an underground tank that would eventually need to be upgraded to meet new environmental regulations.

With their father easing slowly into retirement, Laurie and Roy ordered the retrofit in 2001, ripping out the underground tanks and purchasing a new set of pumps that would sell gas by the litre.

They then had the same pump their dad had posed with on that August afternoon in 1984 cleaned up and restored to match its original condition as closely as possible.

The price window doesn’t read past $9.99.

Its sales window is permanently fixed at 33 1/4 gallons for 32.7 cents per gallon, which would total $10.87.

At today’s prices, that fill-up would cost about $150.

Organizations: Department of Weights and Measures, Eckville Super Station, Eckville Super Service

Geographic location: Canada, Eckville, U.S.

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