Collector unearths filling station history

Monday, June 23, 2003

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- In the early 1950s, oil cost 15 cents a quart, about the same price as a gallon of gasoline.

You could pull up to a filling station and literally pump your own gas, get an oil change, have a spark plug replaced and an inner tube vulcanized. People were nice, too. They liked to talk a lot. Buying gas use to be an afternoon affair, a social hour.

"People would come in, hang around the store and spin tales for hours," said 62-year-old David Hiatt, a St. Joseph resident who has collected more than 15 years worth of old porcelain gas company signs and gas pumps from the heyday of filling stations.

"That was the fun part about it, people would talk about the neighbors, their families about everything."

Hiatt worked off and on as an employee at his father, Haskell Hiatt's, Phillips 66 station in DeKalb, Mo., from the time he was 10 years old and into his late teens. His brothers did, too. He remembers hating the station because he would rather have been playing ball or swimming like a normal kid, instead of fixing flats and sweeping oil-stained concrete floors.

Fifteen years ago, things changed. Hiatt started to appreciate his childhood and his father's work ethic, and he began collecting bits from his filling station past.

His first piece was a vintage Phillips 66 sign that hung off of his second cousin's tank wagon truck, which used to distribute gasoline to his father's station and surrounding Phillips stations. Now he has more than 50 signs, 60 pumps, a giant red Mobil Pegasus (circa 1957) towering over his property and plans for more.

"He wouldn't relate to this stuff at all times were tough," Hiatt said, peering through his wire-frame glasses over his backyard display.

He looks a lot like his second cousin, Rod Hiatt, in the yellowing black and white pictures piled on top of a restored oak showcase that once displayed tire repair kits, oil bottles and spark plugs at his father's station.

"Gas stations represent hard work. It wasn't romantic," he said. His father "passed away not ever knowing that he would one day have more money in antiques in that building than he was ever worth."

Fierce competition

In rural country towns, competition between gas stations was fierce. In DeKalb alone, Hiatt's father was competing against two other filling stations. It's no surprise, filling station history is entrenched in turmoil, starting with pinpointing exactly where the first one started up.

Some people say the first official station was built in Seattle in 1907. It belonged to Standard Oil of California, now Chevron, and consisted of a shed, a 30-gallon tank with a garden hose attached to it and served 200 customers a day.

"There's a lot of history, a lot of stories behind all this stuff," Hiatt said. "Everybody loves it."

That's not always the case, though.

Hiatt's wife, Janice, used to think he was crazy.

"I just thought he was going to bring home a few pumps, a few signs I didn't realize we were going to accumulate so much," she said. "I have nothing against it. I think there is a lot of worth to this stuff."

Hiatt says the reason old pumps have survived all this time is partly because the Environmental Protection Agency does not allow used gasoline pumps to be disposed of at trash dumps. So people saved them throughout the years in barns and back yards without a clue as to what to do with them.

On eBay, a 1940s Wayne Model 70 Texaco pump has a reserve price of $2,395 and a single original Dixie gas oil pump globe sign is at $500. Hiatt has a few items now worth thousands.

"It's nice to know that something you've been collecting for so long is worth something," he said. "But it's hard to describe the feelings I have for this stuff. I don't have the words."

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