As a kid in the 1950s, Mark Mendenhall knew just about everyone in his hometown of Buellton, population 250. These days, the population has swelled to 15,000—as has Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana, (yes, that’s a real word) a collection that his father, Jack, started half a century ago.
It’s a passion that Mark and his wife, Vickie, have carried on. Arguably the largest private collection of its kind in the country, the museum features vintage gas pumps, porcelain gas and road signs, and other related (and a few unrelated) artifacts.
“I like to show people what the past looks like,” notes the building contractor and private museum curator/director/chief engine-oil changer. When his dad owned the local “service” station in the 1950s, young Mark pumped your gas and checked your water, oil and tire pressure. Garages, a towing business and a wrecking yard also became part of the family empire.
Today, for $15, you can call to reserve a two-hour tour—depending on what they are doing—usually led by Vickie, accompanied by 1950s music playing in the background.
There are 4,000 signs, 100 vintage gas pumps and some 500 globes that once lit up the top of gas tanks. Highlights include race cars and hot rods, a gigantic Union ball sign that turns and glows overhead, vintage neon signage and other cool stuff filling 18 garages.
The first self-service gas pump—the Gas-O-Mat—probably designed around the same time as automat vending machines that dispensed sandwiches and drinks a century ago, is a highlight. This 1925 relic is one of just 25 coin-operated gas pumps in existence.
There are a “few thousand” California license plates from 1914 to present day and an entire collection of Hot Rod magazines (826) dating from 1948.
Everything has a story—or a few—including one of the oldest items, an 18th-century gas pushcart.
Mark’s favorite display is a case of Richfield memorabilia that includes the oil company’s caps, credit cards and promotional items from the 1950s-70s.
“It’s not just a man cave—there’s something for everybody,” he says, while showing off his 1967 Mustang replete with an 8-track tape deck and just 13,000 miles. “It’s like the car in Bullitt, only a year older,” he says, citing the Steve McQueen flick’s famous car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco.
For those not into gravity-flow gas pumps with glass cylinders (circa 1910-1930) and other petroliana, unrelated items on display include a 19th-century music box that plays “Stars & Stripes” and a glass-windowed coffin atop a cart circa 1800 with “grandma” (a medical skeleton). The first “entertainment center” from RCA Victor—a television, turntable and radio all in one unit—is a rarity that retailed for a pretty penny in its day: $1,395.
My favorite item is the “Polly Gas” neon parrot sign, one of 37 vintage graphic signs including neon from Van De Kamp’s Bakery and Foster Freeze.
Mark recently spent a year and a half restoring one of his dad’ís original tow trucks, a 1958 Ford F-350 from his dad’s Buellton Garage. Lest you get the “petrol bug” after your tour, Mark recommends “Gas Bashes,” gasoline paraphernalia collector swap meets that take place around the country.
Whether you’re a senior wanting to take a trip down memory lane or a youngster curious about America’s petroleum past, check out this unique collection. You can even book the museum for a private party—the bar was a Baptist church once upon a time and the checkered floor in the pump display room is perfect to do The Lindy—all amid a colorful, nostalgic backdrop.
Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana, 24 Zaca St., Buellton; 805/689-2402; mendenhallmuseum.com
This story was originally published in the winter 2016/17 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.