Route 66 in the News
Museum Pays Tribute to Gas Stations of the Past
EMBUDO, N. Mex.- Tucked away on Highway 68 in the northern New Mexico community of Embudo, three 1940s-era gas pumps stand as sentinels at a filling station.
On the porch is a red 1960s Coca-Cola chest cooler, a 1950s metal sign proclaiming "We Give S&H Green Stamps" and a life-size cigar store Indian that stares back at the pumps.
You won't see cars pulling up here to refuel, but there are vehicles: a 1954 Packard Patrician, a 1957 Studebaker station wagon, a 1948 Studebaker pickup truck, a 1934 Chrysler sedan and a 1929 Chevy sedan.
Those relics would be more at home in a museum than in a gas station, and that's exactly where they are. Classical Gas is a museum dedicated to the great American filling station, a place where kitsch and "petroliana" collide.
Museum owner and curator Johnnie Meier, a retired Los Alamos science and technology geek, is an eternal collector of old and oily artifacts that might have otherwise wound up in a landfill.
He also sits on the editorial boards of "American Road" and "Route 66" magazines. He also writes freelance pieces for several hot rod publications.
Within the Classical Gas collection are colorful oil cans, signs with thermometers, gas pumps, crowns and globes that capped the pumps, old photos and postcards of gas stations, old license plates, ashtrays set into miniature tires, and toy cars, trucks and model gas stations.
There are even some 1940s-era Firestone spark plugs in the original box proclaiming that the electrodes contain "radioactive" polonium, the same material more recently blamed in the poisoning and death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
"I like this stuff as art and I like the history it represents. It's part of Americana. It appeals to me on so many levels," Meier says. Gesturing toward rows of old oil cans, he notes that "the oil was the same on the inside, but what sold it was the graphics on the outside."
Meier, 57, was born in Waco, Texas, but as an Air Force brat, he grew up in a family that regularly relocated.
For a while the family lived in England and Okinawa. When it came time to move, he says, "we'd take these long road trips, and gas stations became something of an oasis to me."
Meier attended Texas State Technical College in Waco, where he met the woman he would later marry and where he got a bachelor's degree in laser physics in 1972.
"I was eager to get to work, and the industry was eager to have me," he says. He took jobs with defense department contractors in Orlando, Fla., then Dallas.
"But the very best work was being done at Los Alamos," he says. "That's where the superstars were, the guys doing the most creative and innovative work."
And that's where Meier wanted to be. When he was offered a job there in 1978, he jumped at the opportunity.
His wife wasn't as enthralled with the place.
They divorced and their daughter, Vanessa, now 32 and working in California, visited each summer and saw the museum take shape and evolve, he says.
As a teenager, Meier 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 I'd take it and put it in my garage."
He began collecting in earnest about 20 years ago, finding items at garage and estate sales, junkyards, antique shops and old barns and farms. Museum visitors also turned out to be a great source, sometimes selling and sometimes donating items to the collection. One out-of-state visitor mailed him a set of 1930s miniature toy gas pumps 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 upon checking with county officials, they presented him with a thick book of zoning ordinances.
He then learned of the two-acre site in Embudo, so he went to Rio Arriba County officials to see their book of zoning regulations. "They said, 'We don't have one, do what you want.'" So he did.
Meier began setting up exhibits in the existing house on the property he purchased, but pretty soon got tired of "running people through my bathroom and bedroom three times a day," he says. That's when he built the 1,000-square-foot building that's now home to the Classical Gas Museum.
Motorists often come upon the museum unexpectedly and decide to stop on a whim.
"Universally, the first thing out of their mouths is, 'Wow!' " he says. "People are surprised by the sculptural beauty, artistic design and explosion of color. They had never before looked at these things as pieces of art. Sometimes they tell me this is the highlight of their vacation. I tell them I hope their vacation gets better."
Joking aside, Meier is passionate about his collection. He walks to an art deco-influenced Wayne Model 60 gas pump from the mid-1930s. "This model is regarded by many as the world's most beautiful pump," he says. "The people who designed it cared about design in the most functional of items."
Although there is no admission fee, Meier earns cash to support the museum from the state's burgeoning film industry. Crews rent items from the museum to lend period detail to movies and TV projects.
The Classical Gas Museum transcends what Meier affectionately calls "a bunch of gas station junk." It's about art and design and about an earlier time when cars were king and gas was as cheap as the dirt from which it was pumped.
"I may be a little eccentric, but I'm also really committed to the historical preservation of this stuff," he says.
"You know, it really is quite beautiful."
~Rick Nathanson, Albuquerque Journal