100 years at the pump

Ralph Kinney Bennett describes 100 years of the history of selling gasoline. 100 Years of Fill ‘Er Up may bring back memories if you’ve been on the road for longer than you’d care to think.

it is believed that the first gas station was established in St. Louis, Mo., in 1905, by two gentlemen named Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig. Their first station’s gas tank was reportedly a converted water heater. … basically of a shed and a cylindrical steel tank raised on a platform with a garden hose attached. No pump. It was “gravity fill,” with a crude filter behind the shut-off nozzle at the end of the hose to screen out impurities.

By 1914, gasoline would surpass kerosene as the major product of oil refineries.

The plethora of pumps along sidewalks and road berms became a traffic hazard and more. Cars lined up along the curbs of busy streets to get gas. Some of the pumps were not particularly safe or not properly operated. Gas spilled. Passing smokers were a danger. Horrific fires occurred. A great public outcry was heard. Soon, many cities began banning them.

The effort to make a station stand out to the growing ranks of motorists resulted in extravagant architectural competition.

The 1930s were the years that the “classic” service station took form. Oil began to be sold in sealed cans rather than re-usable bottles. Major oil companies built trademark stations with standardized art deco designs reflecting “modern motoring.” Excellent free roadmaps, free air, free water for thirsty car radiators, and, best of all, clean rest rooms, became staples of the high traffic stations.

The 1950s were the final glory years of the classic service stations.

Susanville still seems to be stuck barely one stage past the curbside sales. Does this town yet have an RV friendly station? Maybe someone will put a plaza on that new extension south of town. Meanwhile, watch for tight corners, low shed roofs, and deep gutters in town when you try to fuel up.

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