A Fondness For Old Gas Pumps
By Tom Poland
Something about old gas pumps pleases me. I think of them as elder statesmen, as senior citizens left behind by the rush of time itself. When I see a proud old pump, its dispensing days behind it, I feel a surge of pride tinged by sadness. Veterans of another era, they have been put out to pasture.
I have a long history with gas pumps, and I’m sure you do too. Ever wondered how many hours you’ve spent by a gas pump filling your cars over the years? The answer is plenty. Ever worked at a place where one duty was to pump gas? I have.
My first job, outside of working for Dad, was at Goolsby’s store on Georgia Highway 47 bagging groceries, stocking shelves, and pumping gas. I liked the way the old pumps clicked off the increments as gasoline flowed into cars and trucks. I liked, too, the glass bubbles where you saw the gas swirling. Note that this old pump has instructions that read, “Glass must be full before delivery.” And who can forget the old pumps with glass globes atop them. The old pumps amount to works of art; consider them sculptures. I’ve had a fondness for old gas pumps ever since.
Only once did pumping gas concern me. Down at Goolsby’s Store I pumped regular into a car whose owner wanted “high test.” The way he reacted to receiving regular made me think I had mixed nitro and glycerin and that car would explode when he started it up. Of course all was fine.
Back in my early years of driving when money was scarce, an old pump often got the last dollar I had. I got my money’s worth though. A dollar’s worth of gas would keep me rolling a long while. Not so today. Today’s gas prices vary wildly from day to day and it seems any excuse is justification for shooting up the price 19 cents a gallon overnight. Back before all this global concern shifted logic upside down, the old pumps were stalwarts of stability. Not so anymore.
No matter the price of gas, you must admit that gas pumps serve an indispensable role in life for most of us. We can’t get very far in our mobile society without them. Having said that, let me add that I don’t care for the modern digital pumps that put on the pump breaks as you near the end of your purchase. Seems the last gallon takes as long as the previous five. And most of all, I absolutely detest the pumps where an ad plays as you fill your vehicle. I mute them … when that works.
The old pumps had class. They weren’t half pump and half robotic salesman. My Granddad Poland had a classy old pump down on his farm. It provided the fuel his tractors, trucks, and cars needed. It’s been gone for decades but I can lead you right to the spot where it stood. That pump and a few others fuel my interest in abandoned stores and old farms. To this day when I spot a lone pump at a shuttered country store or what was once a farm, I try to get close to it and read the price of gas per gallon off those old dials. The pump you see with this column has gas at exactly 25 cents a gallon. I like this old pump a lot. I even like the warning that it contains lead; that was to keep cars from knocking. I like the old Esso tiger on the front. “Put a tiger in your tank.” Remember that? Of course, Esso became Exxon. Once known as Standard Oil (SO, see?), Esso changed its name to Exxon when other Standard Oil spinoffs complained about the use of Esso.
Stopping to check out an old gas pump can lead to interesting tales too. Remember my column about the mule kick that killed eight people? It all came about because I stopped to photograph an old gas pump. Let me refresh your memory with the introduction.
You can drive by a place 1,000 times and be unaware of its history. Such was the case for a small country store on Highway 378 in Edgefield County. Over the years I’ve passed the little store you see with this column 1,000 times and not once did I stop. That changed Sunday, October 13. I did pass it but I turned around and went back, curious to see what the price of gas was on the old rusty pump.
I got out with my camera and a classic RC Cola sign immediately distracted me. Behind it was another vintage sign advertising Camel Cigarettes. American Pickers would like this place I thought. I moved closer to get a good shot. That’s when a man slipped up behind me.
“If you think I’m selling those signs you’re wrong.”
Startled, I said, “No, I just wanted to photograph the old gas pump and the signs caught my attention.”
“People try to buy them all the time.”
“It’s a wonder someone hasn’t stolen them,” I replied.
“Maybe I’ll file off the nail heads,” he said and then he paused. “My granddad got killed in that store.”
“Robbed and shot?”
“No a woman had him killed for $500.”
And then the most incredible story unfolded, a story that goes back to 1941. The little store at the intersection of Highway 378 and Highway 430, a road that leads to Edgefield, a road known as Meeting Street, holds deep, dark secrets.
It’s unlikely I’d stumbled onto that story anytime soon had I not stopped to photograph the pump at the old Timmerman store. Like the pump portrayed with this column, the Edgefield country store pump was rusty red. Unlike this photo, it was not out in the middle of nowhere with nature overtaking it. I call this photo “Going Green.” I think the sky is falling Chicken Little types ought to like that. It’s been a long time since the handle on this old pump was cranked and just as long since it saw a truck or car pull up. Think of all the hydrocarbons spared.
Most of all I like this old pump because the penetrating smell of gasoline has given away to the sweet smell of honeysuckle. Every now and then, as I ferry across the Savannah, I’ll make time to detour off Highway 378 to check on this Mt. Carmel survivor. I expect it to continue to age gracefully, and I expect the honeysuckle to encase it in green and yellow as springs come and go. And I expect to take more photos of this veteran of another era.
Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net
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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”