Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 15, 2014
"Fill 'er up?"
We had passed the place any number of times on our way from our cottage in Three Lakes, Wis. to the nearby town of Eagle River. Each time, I'd be drawn to it because of the large Shell, Texaco, Standard and BF Goodrich signs on the grounds and the red-winged Mobil Pegasus logo on the outside of the building.
I'd often suggested to husband Art that we should stop and take a look. But the words would be barely spoken when a contrary thought would strike: "What is a museum about petroleum doing in the back woods of a state that doesn't even produce the stuff?" Was it just some wacky local whose brain had been affected by too many northern Wisconsin sub-zero winter days?"
So it wasn't until this year, nine years after it opened, that we finally made it to the Northwoods Petroleum Museum.
The size and sheer number of items struck me immediately. The 4,000-square-foot building had previously been a snowmobile business. But now it was filled from floor to rafters with 4,000-plus items ranging in size from golf balls with oil company logos to automobiles. It was divided into three rooms. The first was dedicated to Shell, Penzoil and Quaker State items, the second to tires and racing - including the Indy 500 - and the third to all other gas- and oil-related memorabilia.
All items were expertly-displayed and well-marked with photos or historical information. One section had the history of gas pumps beginning with a pump that was used in 1899. A Texaco pump from the early 1920s showed the price of gas at the time - 18 ½ cents per gallon.
Other display cases, tables, counters and wall-mounted boards were filled with oil, gas and antifreeze containers, gas station maps, license plates and other "petroliana." Some of the more unusual items included home products with company logos - salt and pepper shakers shaped like gas pumps, ashtrays, children's banks, potholders, clocks, games, and toy plastic and metal gas station sets. My favorites were a late 1960s/early 1970s string of Christmas lights shaped like miniature plastic Humble and Shell gas pumps, a bar of Sinclair soap in the form of a dinosaur and a sewing kit from Phillips 66. The sewing kit made me smile with its play on words:
"Just as we hope you find this needle pack useful to you - we believe you will discover our products and services beneficial to your car. While we may be 'needling' you for your business and hope we can 'sew' it up - we ask that you merely try us for service. Then you may see 'eye to eye' with our other satisfied customers ..."
Seeing all the items, some of which I remembered and many that were new, was fun. But I think I enjoyed speaking with the owner, Ed Jacobsen, even more. Originally from Chicago, he got his marketing and management degrees from Marquette University in Milwaukee and then worked for Exxon for six years.
"I didn't like corporate life," he said, "so I opened my own station." He eventually had six gas stations in the western suburbs of Chicago.
His wife is originally from Northern Wisconsin, so they retired to the North Woods. When asked why he had opened the museum, his answer was short and to the point - "boredom." He added that over the years he had accumulated so much stuff that his wife called it "collecting run amok." It had filled their house, garage and boat house. Of the museum's contents, about 95 percent is his and the other five percent was donated or on loan.
Jacobsen is friendly and knowledgeable, and it's obvious he enjoys showing people around and sharing his knowledge of the oil and gas industry. We discussed some of the industry's old slogans - Esso's "Put a tiger in your tank," Mobil's "Look for the sign of the flying red horse" - and even sang one of the jingles together - "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star - the big bright Texaco star!"
Jacobsen said he gets nearly 3,000 visitors a year and has had them from every state in the U.S. and 20 foreign cities, including Tokyo, Japan; Rome, Italy; London, England; and Lima, Peru.
He said his museum goes back to a time when gas stations were friendlier and when attendants would not only "fill 'er up," but would also wash the windshield and check the oil and tires, all with welcoming smiles.
Jacobsen's marketing training was evident when he told a story about his first filling station. While filling the tank for a first-time customer, an employee would use a small Dymo label maker to print out the customer's name. The label was then placed on the gas cap. The next time the customer came in, an attendant would open the gas cap, see the name and be able to greet him or her by name.
"But then self-service came in and that didn't work any more and all those people probably wondered where that label came from," Jacobsen said.
Art and I certainly enjoyed our visit and stayed far longer than we had intended. It is different from similar places - not stuffy like many public-supported facilities and not a disorganized jumble like so many private ones. Perhaps it is best described by a poem called "The Museum" Jacobsen displayed at the front counter. A few lines are:
"...I have pictures of towns with their ups and downs that were built by petroleum booms.
And even some signs that tell of the time when stations had 'certified' rest rooms.
"...Some things in this place will light up your face and probably be a reminder
Of a place down the street where people would meet and things were gentler and kinder.
"...You'll recognize things as your memory sings and you'll know 'em the minute you see 'em.
So now settle back and follow the track of history in our little museum."
So it was no surprise when Art asked Jacobsen what he hoped people got out of their visit, he said, "This isn't a learning experience. It's a remembering experience!"
Top-left: Museum on U.S. Highway 45 north of Three Lakes, Wis.; top-right: Jacobsen's display of gas pumps; bottom-left: Sinclair's Dino soap; bottom-middle: some of the museum's many commercial oil-product signs; bottom-right: museum owner and operator Ed Jacobsen.