Tucked away on Highway 68 in the northern New Mexico community of Embudo, on the road along the river that runs through the canyon between Santa Fe and Taos, is the Classical Gas Museum, which pays tribute to the great American filling stations of the forties and the fifties. Johnnie Meier is the owner and curator.
Filling every corner in the small wooden building that is home to the museum and the yard that surrounds it is an amazing array of gas station memorabilia that bring back memories of the heyday of American motoring, during the forties and fifties. The collection includes: old gasoline pumps, colorful gas station signs, oil cans of every brand, calendars, and soft drink signs that urge you to drink Royal Crown Cola and other sodas of days gone by - days when big chrome-trimmed American motor cars cruised the highways across the USA and gasoline was cheap.
A life-sized wooden cigar store Indian greets visitors on the museum’s porch. Standing next to the museum’s official greeter, a red 1960s Coca-Cola chest cooler, and a 1950s metal sign proclaiming "We Give S&H Green Stamps" provide clues to what lies within the museum.
Among the museum's collection are colorful filling station signs, a variety of vintage gas pumps, decorative crowns and globes that once proudly capped gas pumps. A variety of oil cans, old photos, postcards from gas stations, old license plates from many states, toy cars and trucks line the shelves. Among the more fascinating items to be found here is a model Texaco gas station, and a display of some 1940s era Firestone spark plugs, still in the original box, which ominously warns that the electrodes contain "radioactive" polonium.
Meier comments, "I see this stuff as art and I like the history it represents. It's all part of Americana.” He points out that, "The oil in these cans was nearly all the same, but what sold the brands were the colorful graphics on the labels."
Although the museum is overflowing with gas pumps, there is not a drop of gasoline to be bought. But that doesn’t matter to the classic old cars parked nearby, which are part of the museum’s growing collection - a 1954 Packard Patrician, a 1957 Studebaker station wagon, a 1948 Studebaker pickup truck, a 1934 Chrysler sedan and a 1929 Chevy sedan - because they are not going anywhere, anyway.
Meier, has been a longtime collector of gas station artifacts. An ardent motoring enthusist, he also sits on the editorial boards of "American Road" and "Route 66" magazines, and writes freelance articles for several hot rod publications.
Born in Waco, Texas, Meier grew up as an Air Force brat and his father was frequently transferred to different air bases. When they travelled to new locations, Meier remembers, "We'd take long road trips, and each gas station along the way became an oasis to me." He was fascinated by their colorful signage, modern gasoline pumps, road maps and oil can graphics.
Meier attended Texas State Technical College in Waco, where he received a bachelor's degree in laser physics in 1972. He eventually worked as a scientist at the labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
His Americana collection began, when he was still a teenager. He said, "I used to mess around with old cars and go to junkyards to find parts." He recalls, "Occasionally I'd find an old gas or oil can in the trunk of a car and take it and put it in my garage."
He said he began collecting in earnest about 20 years ago, finding items at garage and estate sales, junkyards, antique shops, old barns and farms. Museum visitors have also turned out to be great sources of items for his collection. Sometimes he purchases items and sometimes they are donated. He recalled that, “One out-of-state visitor mailed me a set of 1930s miniature toy gas pumps that were still in the original box.” Another sent him a 1950s Texaco gas station attendant cap with a shiny patent leather bill.
In 1992, Meier began searching for a place to locate his museum. He first looked at the former mining town of Madrid, but was deterred from locating there because of its many zoning ordinances.
He eventually located his museum in Embudo, New Mexico, after learning that the Rio Arriba County officials there were receptive to his idea and told him they had no zoning regulations to restrict his plans.
Meier first set up his exhibits in a house on property he purchased, then later built a separate 1,000-square-foot building that is now home to The Classical Gas museum.
He said that, “Motorists often come upon the museum unexpectedly and decide to stop on a whim.” He added, "The first thing word of their mouths is normally, 'Wow!' He further commented that, "People are surprised by the sculptural beauty, artistic design and explosion of color that my collection offers."
Proud of his collection, Meier points an art deco-influenced Wayne Model 60 gas pump from the mid-1930s. "This model,” he notes, “is regarded by many people as the world's most beautiful pump. The people who built it, obviously cared about design."
Meier charges no admission to see the museum, but he earns income to support it from the state's growing film industry. He said film crews often rent items from the museum’s collection to lend period detail to movies and TV projects.
Meier is dedicated to the preservation of the historical American motoring treasures his Classical Gas museum displays." He notes that, "These artifacts really represent the unique art and design of a bygone era." It was a time when Americans traveled the USA in their big, shiny American-built cars - and the gasoline that powered them was cheap (18 cents a gallon in 1940).
Story edited by Mel Fenson, based on information derived from a story in the Albuquerque Journal by Rick Nathanson, that appeared online at: http://www.route66university.com