He may not self-identify as a philosopher, being a proud gearhead and gas-station grease monkey at heart, but Mark Mendenhall was nothing if not profound when he looked around and took stock of all he surveyed.
“You can have 4,000 signs,” he said, a quick head nod left and right to walls covered floor-to-ceiling with what collectors call petroliana, “but if you don’t got a place to display ’em, you just gotta garage full of junk.”
Junk? At the Mendenhall Museum in this tiny Santa Barbara County town?
Hardly. Years — nay, decades — of work and toil, of bargaining and barnstorming, have gone into Mendenhall’s eponymous Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana, which is a sentimental trip back for anyone who remembers when gas prices were under two bucks and customers were greeted by attendants who promised “service with a smile,” not automated pumps with temperamental credit-card slots.
When you set foot into this wonderland celebrating America’s love affair (addiction?) with burning fossil fuels, you will find yourself immersed in a man’s life work. That man is Mark’s dad, Jack, whose profession may have been as a gas station owner, but whose passion in retirement was collecting every bit of gas-station memorabilia he could haul in his truck.
He hauled it all, from glowing globes above old-fashioned pumps of long-forgotten oil companies, to porcelain highway road signs, to neon logos once perched atop beloved roadside stops, to license plates from every state in the union (Canada and Mexico, too) to all manner of hot rods and land-speed vehicles that he and Mark raced for kicks and big trophies.
And it’s Mark’s job, now that Jack has passed on, to do right by the old man and build a shrine to all things automotive. That meant finding enough space on the site of the family’s erstwhile service station and auto yard to display nearly all of the mementos acquired over the years, as well as continuing the tradition by haunting “Gas Bashes” (sort of a gearhead version of swap meets), combing the latest issue of Petroleum Collectibles Monthly and even going on eBay to buy, sell and trade his way to compiling arguably one of the most comprehensive petroliana collections you'll ever see.
“What I did,” said Mark, 62, arms waving like a traffic cop, “is take our wrecking yard — see this photo, where all the cars are? — and I built all these outbuildings for the displays. We got all the walls covered, some of the ceilings, too, and we’ve got most of the collection out there for people to see. I still got some stuff in storage, but you know …”• Mendenhall's Museum of Gasoline Pumps, 24 Zaca St., Buellton; 805-689-2402; www.mendenhallmuseum.com. Call to arrange private tour; $15/person.