Morris man’s collection fuels memories of America’s first filling stations
Wally Kill, of Morris, seems to have all the makings to start his own gas station.
He has the gas pumps, air hoses and oil containers. He even has the hose that, when cars drive over it, rings, signaling to attendants that a customer has arrived. All he needs to start his business is fuel.
But on closer inspection it’s evident that the items are a bit dated, yet each one is in pristine condition, thanks to Kill’s handiwork.
It’s all part of the extensive vintage filling station memorabilia Kill’s been collecting for more than 15 years.
It started with an old gas pump.
Kill took the battered, paint-peeling piece to his farm, where he disassembled and sandblasted it, took out the dents and repainted it. When he put the pump together, Kill had restored it to its former glory.
He was hooked.
Kill took another and restored it, then another and another. He now has roughly 50 gas pumps.
As he worked on gas pumps in his farm shop, Kill also added other items to his collection. Each piece played a role in the daily routine of the “filling station.” There’s a cigarette machine from the 1940s and a display case where the oil containers were shelved. He has items the stations would give away to loyal customers, including salt and pepper shakers and a miniature replica of Dino, the Sinclair Oil Company’s dinosaur logo.
The items, however, needed a home place. Four years ago, with the help of some friends, Kill constructed a building to house it all. But it’s not just any old building. On the outside it looks like an old filling station complete with an island for the pumps. The island was constructed using the original specs filling stations used when building their own pump islands.
Driving into the Kill’s farmyard it appears one can simply drive up and get the full service customers of yesteryear experienced when pulling up to the pumps. Kill recalled a trip to the service station included not only gasoline for the car, but a check of the vehicle’s oil and tire pressure plus having the windows washed inside and out. Wait. Inside, too?
“Yep,” Kill said. “At least that’s what we did at Community Oil Company in Morris.”
Kill, for several years, worked “in town” during the winter and farmed from spring planting through fall harvest. For three winters, from 1971 to 1973, he worked at Community Oil, a DX oil company station owned by Harry Hennen and Ted Lawler.
Thanks to another winter job with Arvid Beyer, Kill gained experience in auto body work, which has helped him with the pump and car renovations.
Kill is a quiet man who doesn’t draw attention to his collection, but a visit to his “gas station” isn’t complete without a few stories about the pieces on display or Kill’s accounts of gas stations of yesteryear.
He has on display several different oil containers laid out in the progression in which each was used by the stations. Stations first used glass bottles complete with a metal carrying case. Those bottles had metal caps much like the caps milk bottles had, he said. The caps were eventually replaced with metal pouring spouts which he also has on display. Metal oil containers came next followed by cardboard then plastic bottles.
Nearby is a red air pump. It’s hard to believe that the pump had been damaged when Kill got it. The piece had been run over by a tire and required some pounding to get it in shape, he said. Some sandblasting and a new paint job gave it a needed facelift. Kill estimates it took about 50 hours to complete.
He talks often of two collectors who had an impact on his own collection and gas station knowledge – Jim Burford, from the Bemidji area, and Charlie Wright, of Madison.
Burford’s father, also named Wally, owned 10 gas stations around Bemidji in the 1930s and 1940s, Kill said. During that time gas was cheap at 12 cents a gallon. The stations changed brands often. Over time, larger oil companies began buying up the smaller companies until the government put a stop to the monopolistic practice. But the oil company signs, the signs local gas stations that purchased the company’s fuel displayed, live on. Many are part of Kill’s collection, including an oil company sign from Tydol, and line the walls of Kill’s building.
Others are large signs that stood outside the station. Kill has those on display along one of his farm treelines. The signs themselves are 3 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. From the ground to the sign top, the structures are about 18 feet tall. Tydol, Esso and Co-op are among the names featured.
His extensive collections are all neatly displayed, and the glass globes that once topped gas pumps are all lighted.
Although he’s focused on the gas station collection for almost two decades, Kill’s interest in collecting started years ago with diecast cars. He then moved to muscle cars and next to restoring classic cars. He is self-taught when it comes to the renovations, he said.
Kill also looks for gas station memorabilia at flea markets, auctions and online. Several times people who know of his collection have called him when they’ve discovered an item in their travels.
Sometimes a piece comes his way through sheer coincidence. That happened recently when someone visiting his display noticed an oil company sign Kill had displayed. Well, it was actually half of a Shell Oil sign.
“I think I have the other half for your sign,” the visitor told him. And he did. The full sign is now displayed on one of the farm’s buildings.
Kill doesn’t have formal hours to view his collection, but he has given some tours. Sometimes people just stop at the farm eager to view the pieces.
He isn’t the only family member who loves collections. His wife, Diane, has her own displays of dishes, salt and pepper shakers and Johnsonville china.
“That’s the fun of the game when you go to flea markets,” he said. “We are both looking for different stuff. I’ll go one way, and she’ll go another.”
Together, they have quite the collection of items.
“Our kids will have a terrible time when we die and they have to go through it all,” he laughed. ‘But, there could be worse things.”