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Filling up on nostalgia

Clearwater man’s collection recalls good old days at the pump

If you blink you might miss Bing Skelton’s shrine to gas stations of the past.

His dazzling display of old gasoline pumps and other gas station memorabilia is partially hidden by trees and shrubs from passersby on Stearns County Road 143 near the Mississippi River town of Clearwater.

But hundreds of visitors manage to discover Skelton’s place each year, and he’s happy to show them around.

No less than 51 brightly painted gas pumps dating from before 1920 to the ’70s stand like metal monuments in front of and alongside his workshop on the crowded but orderly compound. Scattered among them are nearly 40 telephone booths and drive-up phone kiosks that were familiar features at gas stations before the cell phone revolution.

Dozens of signs advertise gone-but-not-forgotten brands, like Standard Oil, Cities Service, Mobilgas and DX, or display vintage logos for Texaco, Phillips 66 and Pure Oil. Skelton has even collected traffic signals, parking meters, street and highway signs and vending machines.

The exhibit also includes a horse-drawn wagon and farm machinery from a previous collection.

At 79 and with a white mane, sideburns and mustache, Skelton looks a little like Hulk Hogan, and he’s as colorful as his old gas pumps. Though his real name is Charles, “They call me Chuck; they call me Ingalls too,” he laughed, after Charles Ingalls of TV’s  Little House on the Prairie.

But most people call him Bing because, for some unknown reason, his father nicknamed him that, labeling three of his other sons Buzz, Bumps and Boots.

“I like to have fun” and joke around with people, Skelton said. “I enjoy people. People are our most important product,” he chuckled at his play on the words of an old advertising slogan.

So visitors are more than welcome ,and he estimated several hundred show up each year, many of them guests at the St. Cloud/ Clearwater RV Park down the road. Over the years, they’ve represented most of the states, he said. Their typical reaction: “Wow! I never seen so many pumps in all my life,” Skelton laughed.

He enjoys the old things he’s collected as much as his visitors do, he said. “And I enjoy seeing other people enjoy them.” Skelton said he’s a collector, not a dealer, and has rarely parted with any of his acquisitions.

The retired overhead crane operator said he’s been salvaging vintage gas pumps mostly from around Minnesota for about a dozen years.

He had been collecting wooden wagons and farm equipment when one of his two sons asked if he ever ran across any gas pumps. That brought back memories of his youth when a gallon of gas cost 12.9 cents and he hung out with friends at the local filling station.

Skelton’s first purchase was a 1940s Texaco diesel pump with a globe on top that he found in Brainerd. The oldest one he owns was manufactured around 1918 or ’19 and served early drivers in a town north of Brainerd.

He owns several visible-tank pumps that he believes date back to the 1920s. Gasoline was pumped by hand into a measured glass tank on top of the tall, skinny pump, and then the amount the customer wanted flowed into the vehicle by gravity, Skelton explained.

A red and chrome Standard Oil pump that stands chest high and dispensed fuel to drivers back in 1955 or ’60 is one of his favorites. “That’s a pretty little pump,” he said.

Their appearance is one of the things that appeals to him about collecting gasoline pumps. “I like the bright colors and the chrome,” Skelton said. “On a sunny day the pumps are all shining.”

And he likes to know what’s inside them and how they work. Some of the old pumps weigh 350 to 400 pounds, he said, because the motors were enclosed in cast iron to contain any sparks and prevent explosions.

He’s also motivated by a sense of history. A youngster visiting the display not long ago looked at the phone booths, Skelton said, and asked, “Dad, what is that?” Young people are “losing a lot of things,” he said. They need to learn about the old to be able to appreciate the new.

A born-again Christian, Skelton said the collection also gives him an opportunity to put a good word in for “the Lord,” but he doesn’t force his faith on anyone.

Skelton’s a chainsaw artist too, carving life-size images of American Indians, eagles and bears from large logs. That talent comes from “something inside you,” he said. “A lot of things in life are that way.”

Mary Ann, Skelton’s bride of 53 years, is a collector herself with a passion for different kinds of dishes and other items. How does she feel about sharing their spread with hundreds – or maybe thousands – of his treasures? “I enjoy it with him,” she said. “I enjoy every bit of it.”

How to get there Bing Skelton’s place is a short drive northwest of Clearwater. From northbound Minnesota Highway 24, turn left at the traffic light at Coborn’s onto Stearns County Road 75, then left onto County Road 143, also known as 27th Avenue E., which takes a right turn past the St. Cloud/ Clearwater RV Park and Acacia Cemetery. If you come to Interstate 94 and Warner Lake County Park, you’ve gone too far.

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