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Early Property Types

At the turn of the century, automobile owners would purchase drums of fuel and store them at their residence.  The gasoline would be transferred to a spouted can and then poured into the gasoline tank.  This process was time-consuming, dangerous, and foul-smelling.  As the number of automobile owners grew, more retail options developed.  The earliest retail outlets for gasoline were hardware stores, blacksmith shops, and grocery stores, who already sold kerosene and other flammable materials.  Gas was dispensed in the same manner, but it was much safer to store it away from private residences.  In some cases, gas was sold from a barrel transported by horse-drawn carriages.

The introduction of the gasoline pump revolutionized the industry and forever changed the way gas was sold.  The earliest pump, a "self-measuring gasoline tank," was invented by Sylvanus F. Bowser in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1895.  After Bowser introduced the gasoline pump, several other companies followed in his footsteps.  Each company had its own gimmick or gadget that set them apart from the competition.  Eventually the pumps developed into modern machines with the introduction of the underground tank, lighted globes with advertising, motor-driven calculating pumps, nozzle shutoffs, self-retracting hoses, and duel pumps.  Relatively recent advances have included computerized digital pumps connected to central controls, environmentally friendly vapor-recovery pump nozzles, and pay at the pump services.

Curbside Stations

Three curbside gas pumps located
along the right-of-way in Comstock,
Barron County, in 1939. Courtesy of
Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.
(PH Series 918.60)
The earliest gas station was the "curbside" type, which appeared at the edge of the street, frequently in front of hardware and grocery stores.  Developed around 1915, it consisted of pumps and underground storage tanks.  This was more efficient and much less of a fire hazard than the earlier method of gas delivery via horse and wagon.  Even so, the associated dangers included traffic congestion and fire hazards.  Ordinances were enacted in larger cities during the early 1920s that eliminated curbside stations in urban areas and often limited where other types of gas stations could be located.  For several years, curbside stations continued to thrive in less-congested rural areas in association with general stores and other roadside businesses.  Ordinances and the gradual evolution of the gas station have led to the disappearance of this property type.

Shed Stations

Rare example of curbside gasoline
pump remaining in Ogema, Price
County, in February 1958.
Courtesy of the Wisconsin Department
of Transportation, Bureau of
Environment, District 7 file.

The second type of gas station, known as the "shed," was widely built during the late 1910s.  The shed was utilitarian and came in a variety of shapes and sizes, usually with a dirt or gravel drive.  The sheds themselves were storage buildings, common to a variety of businesses handling bulk commodities.  Visually, they had much in common with the buildings of lumber and coal yards.  Fences were located along the property to mask the utilitarian sheds and the clutter of the unimproved driveways.  Like the curbside stations, the shed stations were located in and around the central business district.  As oil companies began constructing neighborhood service stations they moved away from the utilitarian form towards designs that reflected the residential character of the neighborhood.  The majority of shed stations have been removed or replaced over time.

Interested in learning more about Wisconsin gas stations? Check out the new Wisconsin Public Television program that looks at vintage gas stations as icons of architecture, economics and pop culture. Fill'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations is a collaborative effort of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Public Television.
And watch for the Fill 'er Up Companion Book  from WHS Press by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz. This book visits 60 Wisconsin gas stations still standing today and will be available in 2008.
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