He may not self-identify as a philosopher, since he's a proud gearhead and gas-station grease monkey at heart, but Mark Mendenhall was nothing if not profound when he looked around and took stock of all he surveyed.
"You can have 4,000 signs," he says, a quick head nod left and right to walls covered floor-to-ceiling with what collectors call petroliana, "but if you don't got a place to display 'em, you just got a garage full of junk."
Junk? At the Mendenhall Museum, off Highway 101 in Buellton, Calif.?
Hardly. Years — nay, decades — of work and toil, of bargaining and barnstorming, have gone into Mendenhall's Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana. It's a sentimental trip back for anyone who remembers when gas prices were less than $2 and customers were greeted by attendants who promised "service with a smile," rather than automated pumps with temperamental credit-card slots.
Those who visit this wonderland celebrating America's love affair with burning fossil fuels will be immersed in a man's life work. That man is Mendenhall's dad, Jack, whose profession was a gas station owner, back when ARCO was Richfield and had that proud blue and gold eagle logo. His passion in retirement was collecting every bit of gas-station memorabilia he could haul in his truck.
He hauled it all: glowing globes above old-fashioned pumps of long-forgotten oil companies; porcelain highway road signs; neon logos once perched atop beloved roadside stops; license plates from every state in the union (Canada and Mexico, too); and all manner of hot rods and land-speed vehicles that father and son raced for kicks and big trophies.
It's Mendenhall's job, now that Jack has passed on, to do right by the old man and build a shrine to all things automotive. That meant finding enough space on the site of the family's former service station and auto yard to display nearly all of the mementos acquired over the years. He's also continuing the tradition by haunting "Gas Bashes" (sort of a gearhead version of swap meets), combing the latest issue of Petroleum Collectibles Monthly and even going on eBay to buy, sell and trade his way to compiling arguably one of the most comprehensive petroliana collections imaginable.
"What I did," Mendenhall says, arms waving like a traffic cop, "is take our wrecking yard — see this photo, where all the cars are? — and I built all these outbuildings for the displays. We got all the walls covered, some of the ceilings, too, and we've got most of the collection out there for people to see."
Maybe he'll have to make a few additions. But already he's taken a building that once was a gas station and another that was a church, as well as that vast expanse that once housed junked cars, and turned it into a semi-circle of nearly a dozen rooms gleaming with memorabilia and polished gas pumps from as early as the 1920s. Their porcelain signs ("they don't fade like these aluminum ones they got now") hype erstwhile petroleum companies such as Seaside, Norwalk, Gilmore and Husky.
There is no need to ask Mendenhall, 62, why he does it. You can tell the museum is a labor of love devoted to his father, whose image graces many of the walls.
One of his most prized possessions is not a vintage pump or restored sign; it's a 10-foot old-fashioned town-square-style clock he made with his dad's image on the face and the inscription, "Time for Jack."
"They used to call my dad 'Pack Rat Jack' and 'Cadillac Jack,' and he drank a lot of Jack [Daniel's whiskey]," Mendenhall says. "So I thought the clock with 'Time for Jack' was fitting."