Words and images by Jamie Swann and Kelsey Oates
Nestled along the quiet banks of Lake Santa Fe sits a sleepy town filled with people who are anything but. The unincorporated community of Melrose has pride in its single stop light, which hangs like a beacon in the center of town.
But the true heart and soul of Melrose lies within a stucco-and-chicken-wire building on the corner at that stop light.
Located at the intersection of four counties — Putnam, Clay, Alachua and Bradford — Chiappini’s is a straight shot down SR 21, about 40 miles south of Orange Park.
The interior of Chiappini’s gas station consists of walls lined with jackalopes, swamp monkeys, deer and bass, but it holds more than just taxidermied animals and gags. For 81 years, the blue and white building has been the town’s corner store, full-service gas station, meeting place and bar.
Chiappini’s, like Melrose itself, prides itself on its old-fashioned sense of community.
“This place is paradise,” said life-long resident Chad Hovsepian regarding the town. “It’s slow. It’s a small town and there’s water everywhere. There’s no place better to live.”
Upon first glance, the gas station seems quaint, almost storybook like. The building is covered with artistically painted ads on the fading white exterior that boast everything from live bait, cold beer, hunting supplies and single cans of soda for 50 cents.
Pull up to the pumps and a man named Ed emerges from the double glass doors. With a smile on his face, Ed, playfully nicknamed EdWeiser by locals after the bar’s favorite brew, is ready to pump gas, wash your windshield and even check your engine oil.
Follow EdWeiser inside to find a small crowd gathering around the bar, sipping on Busch beers and chatting about their day – a re-creating of a scene from a rural “Cheers” episode. The atmosphere creates a second home for locals that capitalizes on the strengths of friendships throughout the town.
But Chiappini’s has also attracted a larger following. Legislators have traveled from Tallahassee to rub shoulders with locals and sip beers, while passers-by are often enticed to “stay a while” by the bar-gas station’s friendly regulars.
Most afternoons, patrons with beer cans in hand sit on the bar’s wooden porch or on the concrete steps leading out to the gas pumps. Small children wander inside to buy sodas or snacks while regulars gather in the back of the store to chat and share stories. Some even step outside to play yard games like corn hole and horse shoes.
On some days, dogs follow their owners up to the steps of Chiappini’s where they wait outside for their owners to emerge. Melrose local Shannon Sullivan used to bring her pet possums into the bar when she visited.
The story of this small-town legend began in 1935 when a young Army solider, Joseph Nicola Chiappini, returned from fighting in World War I. After being gifted land from the general he so devoutly served, Chiappini made the decision to capitalize on the lack of anything to do in the quiet town.
The resulting Chiappini’s quickly became the town’s gas station, bait and tackle, grocery store and bar. For 81 years, three generations of Chiappini brothers have dedicated themselves to making their business successful.
And it has been a resounding success.
Stories passed down through the Chiappini family recount soldiers during WWII using Chiappini’s as a common pit stop along their 20-mile journey from Camp Blanding to the dance hall. Being the first place to get beer and wine, the soldiers would buy every last drop, as well as some gifts for their female companions that anxiously awaited their arrival. The local ladies would meet up with the soldiers and dance the night away, pushing their fears and relentless worrying to the back of their head, at least for the night.
In the early 1950s, the remaining debt that the family owed to Gulf Oil for the establishment was paid off. It has since severed its official connection with Gulf, in part, perhaps, because of the unusual nature of the gas-station/bar/bait shop/convenience store.
Today, as a family, the Chiappini brothers, Mark and Robin work together to make sure that the business their father and grandfather worked so hard to maintain, remains a constant and proud name within Melrose.
Today, the same nurturing and welcoming feeling still lives within Chiappini’s.
Not only is it the main gas station for the locals, it is a home for the residents of Melrose, who are each other’s support systems and closest friends.
“When my daughter was sick,” local Jackie Fraga says, “everyone here pitched in money and it saved my baby’s life. They’re family.”
Another time, the Chiappinis held a “wake” in the establishment for a regular who had died.
Helping out the local community is one of Chiappini’s proudest accomplishments. They have hosted annual events such as the chili cook off, and they have successfully helped the local schools.
“Whether you’re from Melrose or not,” said owner Mark Chiappini, “Chiappini’s is everybody’s home.”