"Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" Book Feature
This book feature by Geeta Sharma-Jensen appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on November 15, 2008. To view this review on the newspaper's website, please click here
Wisconsin books offer fuel for thought
Remember that road warrior's battle cry of a few decades back?
"Fill 'er up." And there they'd come, those smiling attendants, uniforms and all, scraping your windshield, topping your tank, bringing your change while you sat comfortably in your car.
Those days are invoked in a nostalgic new book by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz, who take readers on a buoyant architectural tour of Wisconsin's old gas stations.
Their book, "Fill 'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations," is among books by Wisconsin authors — or about Wisconsin — that small publishers and university presses have brought out this year.
Published by the Wisconsin Historical Press, "Fill' er Up" is the first title in a new series, "Places Along the Way," that the press began last month.
Speltz, a historian at American Girl, and Draeger, an architectural historian at the state Historical Society, take readers on a photographic and story-filled tour of some of the oldest and most charming or quaint gas stations in the state. Some look like pagodas, others are windmills, and there's one shaped like a tepee, another a log cabin. Then there are the sleek ones that cropped up as the nation modernized in the 1950s. And others — like the Sherman Perk coffee shop in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood — that are now being used for things other than pumping gasoline.
The authors begin by saying that economist John Galbraith called gas stations "the most repellent piece of architecture of the last two thousand years. There are far more of them than are needed. Usually they are filthy. Their merchandise is hideously packaged and garishly displayed. . . . Stations should be excluded entirely from most streets and highways."
Draeger and Speltz are having none of that. Declaring that gas stations celebrate "the history of our automotive culture" they argue that these stations "have an unusual place in the built environment. . . . As gas stations have helped to shape the modern world, so has the world shaped them."
The book also serves as a brief history of gasoline retailing. The first bulk oil gas station in Madison, for instance, was built in 1900 for the Standard Oil Co., which then had a monopoly on refining and distribution. The proprietors dispensed unfiltered gas from metal or glass containers. They used a chamois cloth filter when pouring the gas.
The first stand-alone gas stations were mere sheds. Some, like the Droster Store in the Town of Burke, sold both gasoline and groceries - sort of like the quick marts of today, you might say. After the First World War, leading Milwaukee architect Alexander C. Eschweiler married the yearning for roadside adventure with America's budding fascination with exotica by designing pagoda-style gas stations for Wadhams. The chain built a hundred of these between 1917 and 1930.
Fill someone's gift sack with "Fill 'er Up" this holiday. It won't disappoint.