Wisconsin architectural historian Jim Draeger figures two schools of thought exist in American towns where gas stations or c-stores are introduced. He calls these schools the “hide ‘em or flaunt ‘em approaches.”
In the “hide ‘em” school, town planners want gas stations or c-stores to adopt architectural flavors that reflect the community’s subjective tastes. Colors, designs and other elements are shaped to the town’s preference.
In the “flaunt ‘em” school, folks just kind of accept the gas station in all its glory, chaw and all.
“It’s a constant give and take,” said Draeger, an architectural historian at Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). “What are the factors that govern how gas stations work and how they operate, and how does that change over time?”
Draeger and co-author Mark Speltz have captured these c-store ponderables in a full-color, 220-page book, “Fill ‘er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations,” printed by WHS press.
“I’ve really been working on this topic for many years now,” Draeger said, days before the book was about to hit retail outlets. “I think what really motivated me to write this book is I’ve always been interested in ordinary, everyday architecture.
“I like the buildings that people don’t really pay much attention to—the background buildings in their lives,” he said. “It’s my belief that there are profound meanings in architecture. You can tell stories about people by looking at their buildings, and the way they’re designed.”
To be sure, Draeger has spent the better part of 20 years traveling the state of Wisconsin, visiting communities small and large to explore their architectural wonder.
Early in his career, Draeger began making notes on old gas stations that sat alongside Wisconsin’s forgotten roads, waiting restoration or certain ruin. He went full bore on the book idea two years ago, releasing the completed product last month. Its full-color photos of modern and historic gas stations in Wisconsin paint a picture that gains admiration from anyone with an affinity for history or the c-store industry.
“Gas stations play such an important role in American culture,” Draeger said. “What really drew me to writing this book was understanding how volatile it is an industry. Such a rapid pace of change is the real story of gas stations. It’s constant change and innovation.”
The most profound change over the years, Draeger suggested, has been witnessed in the gradual decline of human interaction in c-stores. “In the golden years of the gas station, the relationships were intimate and personal between the people who operated the station and the customers,” he said. “Now, it’s much more anonymous. Pay-at-the-pump has removed a lot of that interaction. A lot of customers never step foot in the store anymore.”
Just one of the scintillating snippets of material in the book: The technologies in today’s c-stores are often just knock-offs from a bygone era. “That’s one of the surprising things I found when I was researching the book,” Draeger said. “Some concepts that you’d think are modern actually have roots that go way back.”
Case in point: Pay-at-the-pump. In a small Wisconsin town, Draeger found a gas station whose coin-operated gas pump–an archaic version of pay-at-the-pump–was installed in the 1920s.
“It’s a fascinating story in general,” Draeger said. “People who own and operate convenience stores will be interested in the book. It gives them a perspective on how things came to where they are today. It gives it all a sense of time and place.”
“Fill’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations”
By Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz; photos by Mark Fay