Fill'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations

Fill'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations
Fill'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations
Hardcover: $29.95
208 pages, 250 color and b/w photos and illus., 8 x 10"

Published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press

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Price: $29.95
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By Jim Draeger & Mark Speltz

Since their unremarkable beginnings as cheap shacks and curbside pumps at the dawn of the automobile age, gas stations have taken many forms and worn many guises- castles, cottages and teepees, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne, clad with wood, stucco, or gleaming porcelain in seemingly infinite variety.

The companion volume to the Wisconsin Public Television documentary of the same name, Fill'er Up visits sixty Wisconsin gas stations that are still standing today and chronicles the history of these humble yet ubiquitous buildings. The book tells the larger story of the gas station's place in automobile culture and its evolution in tandem with American history, as well as the stories of the individuals influenced by the gas stations in their lives.

Fill'er Up provides a glimpse into the glory days of gas stations, when full service and free oil changes were the rule and the local station was a gathering place for neighbors. More importantly, Fill'er Up links the past and the present, showing why gas stations should be preserved and envisioning what place these historic structures can have in the 21st century and beyond.

Jim Draeger is an architectural historian with the Wisconsin Historical Society with more than 20 years of historic preservation experience. From roadside architecture to North Woods resorts, Draeger celebrates the importance of ordinary buildings to our daily lives through his research, writing, and lectures. He shares a historic 1936 International-style house in Monona with his wife, Cindy, and son, Nick.

Mark Speltz is a historian at American Girl and is completing a master's degree in history with a specialization in public history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has worked as an independent researcher on exhibits for museums, including the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and is active with several museums in Mineral Point, where he lives with his wife, Kari.

"Fill 'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations"
The Documentary DVD
Produced by Wisconsin Public Television

This 30 minute documentary takes a look at vintage gas stations as icons of architecture, economics and pop culture. 

Purchase the DVD HERE

Interview with Mark Speltz and Jim Draeger

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from researching and writing "Fill 'er Up?"

Mark Speltz: Initially I was surprised by how much the construction of many of these stations meant in their communities. Many stations were a source of pride when they opened, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. They often represented progress and modernity. I also learned a good trick for researching local history in an unfamiliar town. In order to get started and find out "who used to own what" and "what used to be where," it helps to contact the oldest barber in town.

Jim Draeger: One revelation was that professional architects designed most gas stations. Architects have been responsible for designing only four percent of all American buildings, but surprisingly the majority of humble cottage-type or concrete block gas stations were architect-designed, pointing out the technically exacting requirements of gas station safety, planning, and engineering.

Another interesting phenomenon was the degree to which attitudes about class and gender influenced gas station designs. Today, people have no memory that gas station ladies rooms were once adorned with Persian rugs, oil paintings, and wicker furniture.

WHS Press: Why did you decide to write a book on historic gas stations?

JD: I have always been interested in ordinary architecture. I am curious about where ideas about how to build, and what architecture should look like come from. I am most fascinated by the relationship between a building and the culture that created it. Every building is of a time and created in a place; I have been fascinated by how those ideas play out in the everyday buildings that surround us.

I have been interested in gas stations for over 25 years, so this book has a very long genesis. It has taken me decades to tease out the many historical threads that influenced gas station design and weave a narrative that told a story of gas retailing in a compelling and interesting way.

WHS Press: Are there ways in which "Fill 'er Up" is a uniquely Wisconsin story?

JD: Until recently, architecture was inseparable from place. Wisconsin's culture, geography, politics, and history are inextricably woven into the decisions that caused a given station to be built. Wisconsin's history of innovation and invention is reflected in the story of gas stations, from progressivism to prefabrication. In other ways, the story of stations reflects the growing homogenization of America. Increasingly, national trends have shaped our build landscape. I think of the book as charting a continuum from individual innovation and invention, through the emergence of regional chains and brand, to a national and even global market place.

WHS Press: Were there any stations not featured in the book that you wish you could have included?

MS: Yes, we were sad to leave out some stations that had been horribly altered. And of course, a few gems popped up here and there as the book neared publication. Just as some of the stations will disappear in coming years, we're certain that people will let us know of other historic stations in their communities.

JD: Putting together a book that features a limited number of buildings is like having to choose which child you love the most. I regret not being able to include an eye-grabbing Colonial Revival station in West Allis and a romantic brick and stone cottage in North Freedom.

WHS Press: How does the gas station reflect changes in automobile travel during this past century?

MS: The story of gas stations reflect changes in automobile travel in many ways -- we see it present in the growing popularity of the auto and the incredible growth of stations, even in small towns; we see how an important segment of early automobilists, women, affected station design through powder puff rooms and restroom locations; we see additional changes as driving habits vary, road conditions improve, and highways route travelers around and between communities.

JD: In broad cultural terms, gas stations emerged in an agrarian world where a person's immediate locality shaped their interactions, became commonplace in an industrial and capitalistic culture where corporate branding, advertising and an emerging regionalism brought regions of the country closer at the expense of local character, and today reflect our post-industrial global culture where people trade convenience at the expense of their sense of belonging.

WHS Press: Do you think that people could ever have the kinds of emotional attachments to modern stations that they have for many of the historic ones featured in the book?

MS: I imagine some people will become attached to stations built in the last decade, but it seems the lack of personal experiences will be the difference in the long run. Young men got their first jobs at these old stations. Neighborhood kids bought candy and hung out there. The personal service and attention customers received during the glory days of these stations created fond memories. It is difficult to imagine that these connections could be matched today.

JD: Think about your experience as you gas your car today. Do you know the operator by first name and do they know yours? Do they ask about your life, your family or mention your kids by name? Do they catch you up on the news? Do they go out of their way to provide exemplary service and woo you as a steady customer? The so-called service-industry today is increasingly a self-service industry where meaningful interactions between customer and a familiar employee have been replaced by anonymous transactions. Personal relationships have been supplanted by carefully crafted corporate branding. People are nostalgic about gas stations because of what they have to tell us about human interaction. I don't see any emotional engagement in today's stations. Their profitability is based on the removal of genuine human interaction in exchange for efficiency, convenience, and low cost.

WHS Press: In what ways is the book different from the "Fill 'er Up" Wisconsin Public Television program?

MS: The documentary was an exciting project to collaborate on. All of the stations that were featured in the film are covered in greater detail in the book. The length of the book allowed us to feature a greater number of stations spread throughout the state and provide a thorough history of the development of the gas station in Wisconsin and beyond.

JD: The television program is a babbling brook, fast-paced and visually exciting, while the book is a river, wide and deep. The book takes the seminal ideas of the television program and gives them more depth and meaning. It has the luxury of including more stories, more stations, and more details.

WHS Press: Do you think this book will change readers' minds about the artistic and cultural worth of commercial buildings like gas stations?

MS: "Fill 'er Up" will likely be for most readers an introduction to the many styles and types of stations that once dotted Wisconsin's roadways. Learning how to recognize and identify styles and begin to understand their importance and place in history will help readers develop an appreciation for the handful of rare survivors that still stand.

JD: Without a doubt, this book will change the way that readers look at gas stations. They will see gas stations as symbols of the cultural transformations brought on by our car culture. Readers may not rush up to hug the next gas station they see, but they will no longer see them as ordinary objects. Stations will become chapters in the story of twentieth century progress and may give them pause to consider how building both reflect their values and influence their lives.

WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Fill 'er Up?"

MS: After enjoying the book, I hope that readers will torture their fellow passengers by identifying the different styles while traversing the state's roadways. But seriously, I hope readers will rediscover stations that have potential and reuse them in new and positive ways. The preservation of these stations cannot come too soon.

JD: I hope that readers will see that the preservation of historic architecture gives richness, meaning and depth to our lives. Even a building as ordinary and non-descript as a gas station can tell a story that connects us to the past and allows us to understand that the world where we live our daily lives reflects the values, beliefs, and cultural forces of both past and present. I hope that readers will cherish these rare remaining historic gas stations and preserve them to share the stories of our car culture with those who come after us.


2008 ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year 
Finalist in the Travel Guide Category

2008 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
Finalist in the Midwest Regional Category

2009 American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Awards 
Award of Merit

2009 National Indie Excellence Award 
Finalist in the Regional Nonfiction Category

2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards 
Finalist in the History/Historical Nonfiction Category

2009 USA National Best Book Awards 
Finalist in the Travel: Recreational Category


"What an amazing collection of stories, images, and, of course, beautiful vintage gas stations! Draeger and Speltz provide gallons of premium detail that make for hours of fun reading and reminiscing."
--Brian Butko, coauthor of "Roadside Attractions: Cool Cafes, Souvenir Stands, Route 66 Relics, & Other Road Trip Fun"

"Current frustrations over gasoline prices cloud our memory of the central role gasoline has played in the development of Wisconsin. This is a fascinating book, reminding us all of the love affair we've had with the freedom afforded us by the automobile -- all supported by the neighborhood service station." --Ed Jacobsen, Northwoods Petroleum Museum, Three Lakes, Wisconsin

"Draeger and Speltz reliably guide readers back to the auto age in Wisconsin when travelers found the benefits of community along the way at gas stations. They also advocate for the preservation of these gas stations through which we can visit our common past." --Keith A. Sculle, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and coauthor of "The Gas Station in America"

"Whether your interest is automotive history, architecture, petroliana, travel, culture, or any combination of these, 'Fill 'er Up' will appeal to you. With the 'Your Guide to Hitting the Road' section, 'Fill 'er Up' might more likely end up in your glove box than on your bookshelf." --Ken Nimocks, President, Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians


This book feature by Geeta Sharma-Jensen appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on November 15, 2008:

Wisconsin books offer fuel for thought

Remember that road warrior's battle cry of a few decades back?

"Fill 'er up." And there they'd come, those smiling attendants, uniforms and all, scraping your windshield, topping your tank, bringing your change while you sat comfortably in your car.

Those days are invoked in a nostalgic new book by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz, who take readers on a buoyant architectural tour of Wisconsin's old gas stations.

Their book, "Fill 'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations," is among books by Wisconsin authors --or about Wisconsin -- that small publishers and university presses have brought out this year.

Published by the Wisconsin Historical Press, "Fill' er Up" is the first title in a new series, "Places Along the Way," that the press began last month.

Speltz, a historian at American Girl, and Draeger, an architectural historian at the state Historical Society, take readers on a photographic and story-filled tour of some of the oldest and most charming or quaint gas stations in the state. Some look like pagodas, others are windmills, and there's one shaped like a tepee, another a log cabin. Then there are the sleek ones that cropped up as the nation modernized in the 1950s. And others --like the Sherman Perk coffee shop in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood --that are now being used for things other than pumping gasoline.

The authors begin by saying that economist John Galbraith called gas stations "the most repellent piece of architecture of the last two thousand years. There are far more of them than are needed. Usually they are filthy. Their merchandise is hideously packaged and garishly displayed... Stations should be excluded entirely from most streets and highways."

Draeger and Speltz are having none of that. Declaring that gas stations celebrate "the history of our automotive culture" they argue that these stations "have an unusual place in the built environment... As gas stations have helped to shape the modern world, so has the world shaped them."

The book also serves as a brief history of gasoline retailing. The first bulk oil gas station in Madison, for instance, was built in 1900 for the Standard Oil Co., which then had a monopoly on refining and distribution. The proprietors dispensed unfiltered gas from metal or glass containers. They used a chamois cloth filter when pouring the gas.

The first stand-alone gas stations were mere sheds. Some, like the Droster Store in the Town of Burke, sold both gasoline and groceries - sort of like the quick marts of today, you might say. After the First World War, leading Milwaukee architect Alexander C. Eschweiler married the yearning for roadside adventure with America's budding fascination with exotica by designing pagoda-style gas stations for Wadhams. The chain built a hundred of these between 1917 and 1930.

Fill someone's gift sack with "Fill 'er Up" this holiday. It won't disappoint.