In the days of old, but actually not that many years ago, there were full service gas stations, places where you got real service, unlike the mini-mart of today where you are just another face in the crowd and you have to pump your own gas. Okay, so there are a few places in the county where full service stations can still be found, but they are nothing like the days of yesteryear when a man in a uniform would greet you with a smile, pump your gas, wash your window, check the oil, check the air in the tires, and inspect your belts. Then the gas station would give you a gift just for buying gas from their service station. Yes, there was a reason the word “service” was used in gasoline service stations.
They even had saving stamps such as S&H Green Stamps or Gold Bond Stamps that you could save for a wide selection of products. They also offered a variety of their own collectible items, many just for kids, to encourage the parents to come back, such as sports books with different stamps that you would get with each purchase to paste into the books in the designated place. They also had their own special giveaways which you could obtain each week with your fill up that included everything from dinnerware to blankets. I remember the “new” dinnerware and flatware in my home that came from buying gas at the same gas station. Competition was fierce among the stations, with every chain trying to outdo the other with unique offers.
This was all brought back to mind when Terry Pepper, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, while doing some research on the U.S. Patent Office web site, discovered a unique patent for a Gasoline Filling Station with a really neat lighthouse design that was patented in May of 1928 by Robert E. Smith of South Euclid, Ohio. We can only assume that none of the big oil companies ever built a gas station to look like Smith’s design. If they did, we’d like to know about it. However, if they had built some and they were still standing, it might help us somewhat to take our minds off the rising price of gasoline. If nothing else, today those structures would surely have some historical significance, or, at least we’d like to think so.
However, throughout the pages of time there really were a number of lighthouse-themed gasoline stations around the nation. Because of their historical significance, we are publishing photos and historical information of a few of these unique structures. Although none of them were real lighthouses, they are a unique part of the history that relates to lighthouses.
One such company that widely promoted the use of a lighthouse facsimile (a lighthouse-looking structure) was the chain of Tower Gas Stations. Just how many they built and how many are still standing is unknown to us; perhaps our readers can send us more photos than what we are showing in this story. Unfortunately, many of the Tower Gas Stations with the lighthouse no longer exist; however some of their lighthouse facsimile towers still stand today. We were able to find a record of large number of Tower Gas Stations with lighthouse facsimiles in the New York State communities of Sherburne, Cooperstown, Binghamton, Eaton, Endicott, Watertown, Roscoe, Saratoga Springs, Roscoe and Kings Ferry. The only one of those that we could find that still sells gasoline is in Cooperstown. It is now Taylor’s Mini Mart and looks somewhat different than in the days of yesteryear when it also sold used cars.
Unfortunately, historic photographs of many of the former Tower Gas Stations seem to have been lost in the pages of time. Some of the Tower Gas Station lighthouse facsimiles have been destroyed, while a few still stand, but are no longer being used as a gas station. However, it would be interesting to find out whose idea it was to use a lighthouse as the theme for Tower Gas Stations. Obviously we can surmise why the lighthouse was chosen, but who were the people that came up with the idea.
The only gas station that we could find, as of this writing, that actually was built as an actual replica of a real lighthouse was the gas station owned by Pacific Oil Company that sold Hess Gasoline in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was almost an exact replica of the nearby Butler Flats Lighthouse. Sadly, it no longer stands. We’d love to know more about the person who was behind designing and building this structure. Whoever he was, he must have loved lighthouses.
A gas station that does have a structure designed after a real lighthouse is the Kenly 95 Truck Stop in Kenly, North Carolina. They state that their gigantic rendition of the world famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built as a 1/3 scale replica. Whatever the case, it is quite spectacular and is a well known landmark where thousands stop weekly.
One of the more unusual looking lighthouse-themed gas stations was the Texaco Lighthouse Gas Station in Durango, Colorado where the main structure was an adobe-looking stone building with a lighthouse tower rising high above its roof that was also strong enough to hold a Texaco delivery truck. The Texaco Star was proudly displayed in the lantern room window of the tower. Do you remember the old television and magazine ads, “You can trust your car to the man who wears the Star”? By its looks, the Texaco tower might have been patterned after the Port Isabel Lighthouse in Texas. Interestingly, Texaco (The Texas Company) was one of the official suppliers of kerosene to the United States Lighthouse Service. As a point of interest, at one time Texaco was the only gasoline company selling gas under the same brand name in all 50 states and Canada. The company merged with Chevron in 2001.
In Cairo, Kansas, a long way from lighthouse territory, there once stood another unique lighthouse gasoline whose ruins lingered for a number of years until Highway 54 was widened and what was left of the structure was demolished. Artist Michael Boss, who remembered seeing the decaying structure in Cairo before it was demolished, decided to research the structure before he created a painting of it. With help from Marsha Brown of the Pratt County Historical Society Museum in Pratt, Kansas, he was able to piece together some of the history of the station. He was able to learn that the lighthouse gas station was built by the W.S. “Pat” Grier family in 1931 and that it sold Kan-O-Tex gasoline and products. It was also the local stop for the Santa Fe Trailways Bus Line. However, the bus did not automatically stop at the lighthouse gas station. If the gas station had passengers who needed to catch the bus, the Grier’s would place a moveable sign by the highway to let the driver know he had passengers to pick up.
In the history of Cairo, local resident Jack Grier recalled that the lighthouse gas station was a family project, saying, “My mother was the artist and architect in our household. She drew up the plan and helped my dad build it. She roofed the tower while she was waiting for me.” The Cairo structure was constructed of long studs and a spiral staircase inside winding up to the tower’s outer walk. Highway improvements forced the lighthouse gas station to close in 1949.
Another lighthouse facsimile that I’ve known about for years is one that stands in Naples, Maine. The last time I saw it, the structure was a real estate office. However, it wasn’t until recently when I stumbled across a vintage post card that I learned that it was once a Socony Gasoline Station. Following the break up Standard Oil Co. in 1911, Standard Oil Co. of New York became known as SOCONY. In 1920 the company registered the name Mobiloil, which is the name shown on the small signs on either side of the gas pumps shown in the post card, which helped give a clue as to the approximate year the old image was taken.
Probably one of the most spectacular lighthouse-themed lighthouse gas stations ever built was the Miami Beach Gulf Station in Florida. Built in 1938, it dubbed itself “The swankiest station in the word.” Located next to a yacht harbor, it featured a bar, tackle shop, a restaurant, and hotel rooms that served boaters as well as those who traveled by car. The lighthouse tower was emblazoned with 10 foot tall GULF letters that acted as a daytime beacon of sorts and the lantern served as a radio room. Unfortunately, we don’t know the year in which this art-deco style structure was lost to the building boom of Miami Beach.
If you know of additional lighthouse-themed gas stations, we would like to get vintage photographs of them to continue to record and archive this unusual and unique category of lighthouse associated history for future generations.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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