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Book Review: Fill’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz

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It’s easy to assume that all gas stations are fairly vanilla — some might say downright homely — petrol-peddling entities little aesthetic or architectural merit. Almost everyone has stopped at a highway gas station, only to come away feeling a little bit, well, icky: the florescent lighting, three-day-old hot dogs, and unkempt restrooms are less than inspiring to most travelers. But it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, gas stations were the shining beacons of civilization on our nascent highways and bustling small-town centers. Once upon a time, gas stations were beautiful. The Pennsylvania Oil Company service station in Madison, a tall, castle-like tower with ornamental stone light fixtures, was designated America’s second-most beautiful gas station in 1926.

Not surprisingly, the rise of gas stations can be traced to the early twentieth century and the growing number of automobile owners. Many early gas stations were the “curbside” type, where patrons would simply pull up next to the single pump and an attendant would provide fuel and other services. The curbside stations, often part of a hardware or grocery store, evolved in tandem with the rest of America’s changing transportation needs. The Depression, World War II and the post-war boom, the new interstate highway system, and the environmental movement of the late twentieth-century all exerted (sometimes conflicting) influence on gas stations, bringing us to the twelve-pump, convenience-based model we have today.

These days it’s hard to imagine your local gas station placing in any beauty contest. Luckily, in Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz we’ve got two champions of Wisconsin’s unsung historical legacy: the neighborhood gas station. And their new book, Fill’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations, highlights the many shapes and styles of early-twentieth century gas stations. “Gas stations are beautiful,” says the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Draeger, an architectural historian with more than twenty years of historic preservation experience. “I believe people will come to see them as precious, maybe not in the next ten or twenty years, but someday they will be cherished the way that railroad depots are.” Fill’er Up chronicles a time when hundreds of quaint, service-oriented gas stations were the polished gems of Wisconsin’s biggest cities and smallest towns, lining busy highways and rural intersections with offers of “service and a smile.”

While early gas stations incorporated many innovative design styles, some of the windmills, castles, pagodas, and teepees we see in the book are seem gimmicky, almost like something you would expect to see in present-day Wisconsin Dells. But there are also stunning Bauhaus- and Art Deco-inspired stations as well. When viewed en masse, photos of gas stations — unlike train depots, which are another historical/architectural preservation cause — show just how impermanent these structures were meant to be. Indeed, they are perhaps the most transient of all buildings. Erected for a specialized use in a tightly competitive industry, “the average station lasted about ten years before it was demolished, remodeled, retrofitted or changed,” says Speltz, a museum exhibition researcher and historian at American Girl. “The large majority of them in Wisconsin are now long gone. This book has the last rare survivors.”

Indeed, only dozens of these gas stations remain, and efforts to preserve the surviving stations cannot come too soon, say Draeger and Speltz. “They still are ephemeral even today,” adds Draeger. “Some of the structures that we intended to include in the book were demolished before we could put the book out. They are inexpensive and easy to replace, and there’s still pressure to keep up with industry changes.”

But gas stations aren’t only architectural treasures, they also help us understand how the auto shaped, bridged, and intersected the 20th century. According to Draeger and Speltz, they not only mirror the growth of our automobile culture, they are a roadside testament to the automobiles powerful role in transforming twentieth-century American culture. This can be seen in the excitement of older generations who remember, even long for, the days when gas stations offered rich and engaging social opportunities. For instance, at the 1933 opening of a service station in Cochrane at 402 South Main Street, to be exact), owner Henry E. Kochenderfer threw held a slam-bang dedication jubilee. Kochenderfer understood that, especially for a small community such as Cochrane, the structure had symbolic importance. He and his family not only served food and drink, but also helped organize an evening celebration dance in the village pavilion. Calling it “a proud milestone of progress,” the local newspaper invited everyone from miles around to see Kochenderfer’s new service station.

Like the people of Cochrane, many have fond memories of gas stations — especially considering that most were family-run operations. Some folks fondly recall their first job as an attendant, others remember hanging around local stations when they were kids. Decades past, perhaps no one was closer to the core of the community than gas station owners and attendants. While filling the tank and topping of fluids, spiffily dressed attendants would transmit road conditions, neighborhood bulletins, and other tidbits of information that helped to patrons to the community. Gas station owners and attendants were the kind of people who would drop your child off at school if you were stuck at the garage with a flat tire. “They knew all the kids’ and dogs’ names,” says Draeger. “With modern culture in general there’s a dearth of places for people to congregate publicly, the kind of places like the hardware store or gas station, places where people would come to hang out. I think we just scratched the surface as far as the social dimensions and fond relationships people have had with gas stations.”

If we can locate any point when things began to change for Wisconsin gas stations, it would be the years that defined the transition between full-service and self-service: 1968 through 1975. In 1968, there were virtually no self-service stations. By 1975, more than eighty percent of stations had made the transition to self-service. The change was swift, with many stations changing from family-owned to corporate-owned, leaving behind almost all full-service attendants. These days we pump our vehicles anonymously at convenience stores. Often, we pay by credit card and have little or no human involvement.

But, in some parts of Wisconsin, the old traditions are being made new. Severson’s Service Station in Madison is a good example of an old gas station that still serves as a beacon for the community. The no-frills, economically designed station was built in the early 1930s. Richard and Dave Havey owned and operated the station for decades until retiring in 1989, when it was purchased by Joe Krupp. Krupp would later transform the station into Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, a popular eatery which has helped to bring new vibrancy to Madison’s Schenk-Atwood neighborhood while continuing its tradition as a social venue. The opening of Monty’s harkened back to a time when, as Speltz notes, “the opening of a gas station . . . was an amazing event and hundreds of people would come out. It was a symbol of progress.”

Indeed, the book has already engendered a newfound sense of stewardship that helped protect a doomed Janesville service station — a rare intact example of the Standard Oil Company’s design for its 1930’s era “super-service” stations. “The station had been under threat of demolition for the past five years,” says Draeger. “The Janesville city council just decided not to fund the demolition and refused to appropriate the money to tear it down. To some degree, I believe that it was not demolished because we have made it famous in the book.”

Although Draeger and Speltz focus on Wisconsin in Fill’er Up, the story is national in perspective. Each the story behind each gas station provides a piece of broader tale that is lived and felt in communities across the nation. It is the authors’ intent that their celebration of these humble, and sometimes quirky, artifacts will spark interest in preserving this chapter of American transportation and social history. Both Draeger and Speltz see gas station preservation as analogous to the preservation of late-nineteenth century railroad depots. Just as the past decades have seen railroad depots restored and repurposed for new functions by those wishing to keep railroading history and nostalgia alive, old filling stations may see inventive new uses that pay homage to their former glory, and, in the process, secure their future.

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About Brian D'Ambrosio