In the Beginning
Crawford Oil Company has supplied retail outlets and oil furnace owners with quality branded products for over 80 years. There were over a dozen fuel suppliers based in Portage during the mid 1940’s to early 1950’s. Today, Crawford Oil is the only locally based fuel oil supplier in Portage. Company President, Jon Crawford and his dad Jim Crawford, continue to operate the once “mom and pop” operation in Portage while delivering over 30 million gallons of product each year. Jim’s dad, the late Delbert Crawford, became involved in the oil business in the mid-1930’s.
Delbert, born and raised on a farm outside of Portage, was the youngest boy in a family of six boys and six girls. He helped work the farm and left school with a sixth grade education. After working a few years at the Weyenberg Shoe Factory, Delbert worked as a bulk delivery driver. He drove bulk gas/oil truck for Valvoline and the Pure Oil Company. In the late 1930’s, Delbert became an agent for Shell Oil. Shell Oil Company built a bulk tank facility and pump system east of Portage. Three 18,000 gallon capacity above ground tanks were constructed at the Superior Street location. The company paid Delbert one to two cents per gallon for the fuel he delivered. A couple of years later, Delbert bought the bulk tank facility from Shell Oil Company. Ownership of the bulk tank facility changed Delbert’s employment status from agent to jobber; an independent businessman. He needed an office, bookkeeper, bulk tank truck, product, and company name.
In 1969, with over 30 years in the industry, Delbert wanted to retire and sell his company. Delbert and his wife, the late Helen Crawford, ran the business from their home. Helen took care of the bookkeeping, accounts receivable, and office duties. Delbert drove the bulk tank truck and made deliveries. Crawford Oil Company bought their product from the Shell Oil Company. From 1940 through the 60’s, Delbert Crawford delivered Shell branded heating oil and supplied several open dealers with gasoline. Crawford Oil Company accounts steadily grew. Delbert bought another bulk tank truck and hired another delivery driver, now deceased, Leo Joyce. When Leo retired, his two sons, Charles and the late James (Jim) Leon Joyce drove bulk tank trucks for Delbert.
With a waning contentment in education, Jim Crawford was ready for a change. He did not want to remain in teaching. He was not satisfied personally and wanted to give the oil business a try. Jim Crawford was born in Portage in 1943. He has one brother, sister, half sister, and a deceased half brother. Neither Jim nor his brother worked with Delbert. Delbert never wanted his children involved in the industry. Following elementary education in Portage, Jim went to Concordia in Milwaukee. The all-boys boarding school provided academic and ministerial training. Upon completion of high school in Milwaukee, Jim enrolled at Concordia (a parochial teacher’s college) in River Forest, IL. During the high school and college summer breaks, Jim worked as a service attendant at Heberlein’s Shell Station in Portage. While attending college at Concordia, Jim met his future bride, Kathryn Firehammer. Kathryn was raised in Saint Joseph, MI. She graduated from Concordia in 1964 and taught parochial school in the Chicago area. One year later, Jim received his BA degree in education and moved the family to Green Bay, WI. There he taught fourth through sixth grades at Redeemer Lutheran School. Kathryn started a nursery school at Pilgrim Lutheran Church.
In the fall of 1969, Jim and the late Jim L. Joyce formed a partnership and bought out Delbert’s business; bulk tank facility, two trucks, rural delivery and home heating accounts. The company name was modified to Crawford Oil Co, Inc. to denote the new arrangement. The men operated their new business from the Crawford’s home on Haertel Street. Helen Crawford continued handling the accounts and bookkeeping. The two Jim’s each drove a bulk tank delivery truck and made deliveries. In 1971, the two Jim’s bought Nehls Marine building at 416 E. Wisconsin Street in Portage. They moved their office to the location and converted the full service gas island to a self serve, offering the first branded self-serve station in Portage. Jim’s mother Helen, retired from bookkeeping and Bill Brockley took over.
Bill and Jim Crawford formed a partnership and started an appliance business, B.J.’s Appliance Store, and moved into the east half of the 416 E. Wisconsin building. Three years later, Jim sold his shares to Bill and B.J.’s moved across town where Bill Brockley is still operating today. Crawford Oil continued to expand and called on larger commercial accounts, added a complete line of lubricants, diesel and aviation fuel. In 1972, Crawford Oil acquired Peters Oil Co. and opened a second office adding bulk delivery to the Dells area. Following was the acquisition of Columbia Oil Co., Pape Oil Co., Lester Fuel, Jenkins Oil Co., and Tom’s Texaco.
In the late 1970’s, Crawford Oil began to own and operate retail outlets in the Portage area. One of importance was the Jim’s 76 location, home to auto maintenaince and exhaust, operated by the late Ron Sensrud. By 1987, Crawford Oil was operating over 5 locations and supplying 21 retail outlets in central Wisconsin, and so purchased the Harrison Transport Company and began hauling transport from Madison terminals to retail outlets. As gasoline retail margins began to decline and completion fierce with merging of many “Big Oil” companies in the late 90’s and early 00’s, Jim Crawford sold off all his retail outlets except for one, Fort Bp. Mason Station was sold to Jim Joyce, a third generation Joyce with Crawford Oil having more than 30 years with the company.
The Third Generation
In 2007, Crawford Oil entered its next stage of development. With Jim looking to retire and entertain the possibility of selling, his son Jon decided to come give the business a try. Jonathan Crawford, born in 1981, was teaching in Minneapolis, just like his father, when he decided to come try the business. Jonathan began on the truck and quickly learned the parts of the company. By mid-2008 Jim and Jon decided to start a propane delivery service due to the vastly shrinking fuel oil business. By July of 2008, the company changed names to Crawford Oil and Propane.
In 2012, Jon was given the opportunity to buyback a retail location that Jim sold years ago. The location was a place that Jon grew up with and first stocked shelves and bagged ice when he was twelve years old. Jon bought back Jim’s Bp in Portage and revitalized the corner with the addition of Jon’s Car Wash, Pets of Portage retail store, and a Karate America school.
Building on their propane success, Jon continued to expand the delivery business and Crawford Oil and Propane now operates three remote bulk plants outside of Portage along with eight delivery drivers. To better focus on the propane and refined fuels delivery business, Jon saw a market opportunity to sell their Bp Distributorship which Crawford Oil had been involved with over many brands since 1935. And in 2020, Jon was finally able to expand their Main Plant property in Portage to include storage for propane tanks, fleet garage parking, and room to grow! Today, Jim and Jon continue to work together, although not as much since Jim has mostly retired from his 50 years at Crawford Oil and Propane! Jon and Jim have pushed Crawford Oil and Propane towards a strong and exciting future. With three generations strong, Crawford Oil and Propane has seen many changes and have the foresight to handle the always challenging energy environment.