Gas from the past in Fairfax

Times Staff Writer

Pick a date -- in this case, July 14, 1936 -- and pretend that an alien spacecraft plucked a gas station from somewhere in Los Angeles, held it suspended in time and then dropped it back to Earth in 2003.

Behold: Tall, snazzy, cream-and-red-colored pumps, the kind that let you see the gasoline inside. Decorative glass globes, bearing the face of a lion, atop the pumps. An old-fashioned “lubester,” from which a station attendant once drew fresh oil for your engine. Neon banding around the edge of the station roof. Vintage magazines, furniture and maybe even a couple of dead flies inside the office.

What you’ve imagined -- a near-full-size replica of a pre-World War II gas station -- is about to be assembled at the Farmers Market in the Fairfax district. The permanent exhibit, which will not actually offer fuel for sale, is intended to rekindle the little-remembered artistry of an era when independent gasoline and petroleum companies with names like Gilmore, Mohawk, Gibble and Polly battled for business at individual service stations. Within a decade of the war’s end, most of these companies would be gone, swallowed by a handful of oil corporations. Their mascots, promotional stunts and theme songs would fade from memory.

But not in the home of Hank Hilty.

Hilty is the great-grandson of Arthur Fremont Gilmore, who established a dairy farm on the land that is now the Farmers Market and whose heirs launched the market, an oil and gasoline business, a football stadium and a minor-league baseball park. Hilty, 52, runs the A.F. Gilmore Co., where he’s worked ever since a hitch in the armed services.

Two years ago, when construction was beginning on the Grove, a shopping and entertainment center on Gilmore-owned land adjacent to the Farmers Market, Hilty was confronted by a city development requirement to provide public art. The discussions began with plans for a couple of large kiosks about the land’s colorful history. But then Hilty had a chat with Jim Olson, a local exhibits consultant who was once chief of exhibits at the county Natural History Museum, that prompted him to go further.


Hilty knew Olson had installed a replica of a service station at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Now Olson encouraged Hilty to do something similar at the Farmers Market -- to tell the story of Gilmore Oil Co., which during the ‘30s claimed to be the largest independent oil company on the West Coast, supplying 1,100 stations in five states. The Gilmore lion roared from cans of Lion Head Oil, from colorful road maps, from lion-shaped candy and on radio commercials that played ditties like “That Funny Red Lion Gas Song.” Pick a date, Olson suggested to Hilty, and re-create the station as a giant time capsule.

Hilty, whose office at the Farmers Market is the Gilmore family’s 1852 adobe (graced by a portrait of A.F. Gilmore), hired Olson to coordinate the project. Via the Internet, Olson plunged into a booming subculture of vendors who trade in restored or replica gas-station equipment from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

He found the pumps in Omaha, where Andy Anderson had expanded a car collision-repair company into a pump-restoration business called Gas Pump Heaven. “It seemed everybody who had an antique car would be interested in an antique gas pump,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of a funny market; you wouldn’t think there’s enough to keep you busy, but we’ve got three full-time and three part-time people and almost 10,000 square feet of floor space” devoted to pumps.

Anderson’s staff built three Gilmore pumps, using some original tank materials from the ‘30s and fashioning some replica parts. Two of the pumps are 10-foot-tall “visibles” -- pumps with glass cylinders holding 10 gallons, while the third is a “display” pump, which holds car-care merchandise in the center section.

“There’s a lot of ego [gratification] here to say we’ve done one for Gilmore,” Anderson said.

In Portland, Ore., Olson found Mike Slama, who had also started in the auto-repair business, gravitated to antique pumps and wound up specializing in the decorative glass globes that crowned the old pumps.

“California had some of the most imaginative logos,” Slama said. “A company from Southern California, Polly Gas, used parrots; Richfield used the eagle ... part of this was due to the Great Depression. There were a tremendous number of graphic artists out of work. They were cheap -- you could afford to splurge. That’s why among collectors, the ‘30s is kind of a golden age of advertising ... companies had to do anything for an edge .... After World War II, there was a real trend to simplify, streamline; advertising logos became simpler, kind of boring. The glass globes were eliminated.” There are few originals; one recently fetched $18,000.

For the Gilmore project, Slama built three styles of globes, denoting different octane levels of gas: ethyl, Red Lion and blu-green.

Closer to home, in South Los Angeles, Olson went to Madison Industries, which specializes in prefabricated service-station frames, to build the 10-by-25-foot Gilmore building and its 12-by-5-foot canopy for the tanks. Next Thursday morning, the cream-and-red structure is scheduled to be trucked to the Farmers Market, and the assembly process will begin.

Olson, working from old photos, has collected a roll-top desk, flashlight, fire extinguisher, desk fan, phone and other vintage parts for the gas station office. Visitors will be able to peer through the office windows but will not be able to come inside.

Olson says he’d like to place a manikin at the old desk, a service station attendant with his feet up on the desk, balancing on two legs of a chair, reading one of the magazines. “I’d like it to be of Hank, but he’s too modest to go for it.”

Hilty scarcely takes credit for the project, crediting Olson with “holding the authenticity together.” He won’t disclose the cost of the station, but pump-maker Anderson estimates that “Hank spent twice what he could have gotten by with doing.”

A pair of information kiosks are in the works for the Farmers Market. They’ll tell how Hilty’s great-grandfather moved here from Illinois in 1870 and struck oil at the turn of the century while drilling for water for his herd of dairy cows. They’ll tell how A.F. Gilmore’s son, Earl Bell Gilmore, created the petroleum-products business in the ‘20s and promoted it by building Gilmore Stadium and Gilmore Field in the ‘30s and ‘40s, sites that hosted everything from midget-sized racing cars to pro football to Triple-A baseball to boxing. And they’ll tell how, in the early ‘40s, Mobil Oil, which was a primary supplier to Gilmore Oil, bought a controlling interest in the company and soon folded it into the Mobil empire.

Hilty offers six words to describe his family’s determination to keep history alive: “We let these things die hard.”