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October 7, 2009 > History: Fill 'er Up!

History: Fill 'er Up!

"Let the man who is hesitating about cars take a trip....and get in line for the sport of automobiling, for it is a sport-the best kind of sport. There is nothing like the carefree pleasures of a ride through valleys and over mountains along the banks of a winding stream or amid the shade of stately forests. Nature calls the automobiles away from the care and turmoil of the noise and the unrest of a busy city life, and he speeds off to forget his worries and to be reinvigorated for another wrestle with life's problems. Whatever may have been the 'sport of kings' in times past, that sport is now automobiling and the automobile is king."

-Hayward Daily Review, 1908


If the automobile was king in 1908, then the gas station was soon to be the foot soldier that kept the kingdom running. In the early days of the automobile, engineers, mechanics, and amateur inventors experimented with different types of power to run an automobile. We think the new hybrid cars are a new idea but really, those first experimental cars ran on steam, electricity, and gasoline. The struggle was finding a consistent source of power that would allow refueling while the vehicle was out on the road.

Gasoline was found to be an inexpensive source. At the turn of the twentieth century, gasoline was a by-product of kerosene that did not have much use. Kerosene was far more important as it ran lamps and generated heat. But gas could run automobiles and those intrepid early car enthusiasts found general stores and other businesses that would sell them gas in five-gallon buckets. They then transferred the gas into the car's fuel tank by using a funnel. Carrying around five gallon barrels of gasoline in an automobile with poor suspension on narrow and bumpy dirt roads was not the safest of adventures. However, those early "chauffeurs" (as they were called) would do whatever it took to feel the freedom of the road.

Popularity of the automobile kept growing and quickly gasoline became the main fuel source. Other than men who built their own machines, only the wealthy could afford to own an automobile in the early twentieth century. Henry Ford changed all that by making the automobile affordable for everyone with the introduction of the Model T in 1908. Just a few years prior, in 1905, a man by the name of Sylvanus F. Bowser of Indiana perfected a pump that would easily transfer gas from a barrel into a car's gas tank. Bowser's invention, improvements to the distillation and quality of gasoline combined with more automobiles on the road soon brought about the development of the gas station.

At first, general stores installed a gas pump on the sidewalk in front of the store. The driver of an automobile would pull up to the pump, slowly and laboriously pump his or her (women quickly learned the skills necessary to pilot a car) own gas and pay the store clerk, possibly picking up a snack or other items while in the store. The gas pump on the sidewalk created two problems however. It was a hazard for pedestrians and blocked traffic while the car was getting filled up. By 1910, drive-in, off-street gas stations with multiple gas pumps began appearing as dedicated businesses to servicing the automobile. Gas pumps were attached to a building that was often small, yet stylish, featuring the most current architectural design.

The gas station evolved as more cars appeared on the road and more gas stations popped up. Soon, neon signs appeared over the gas station to advertise their store and offered amenities such as water fountains and vending machines for drivers. Most stations also offered "full service" - a young man, usually in uniform, would pump your gas, clean your windshield, check your oil and tires and chat with the driver a bit. According to Chevron, in 1920 it took eight minutes to fill a 5-gallon tank so there was plenty of time for a driver to catch up on the local gossip. Often the station offered minor repair services too. Multiple locations of gas stations and services provided made the automobile all the more convenient as a mode of transportation.

Gas stations soon evolved into significant businesses in any town. So important did gas stations become, that in 1925 the Hayward Journal newspaper proclaimed "...gasoline stations are making many heretofore unsightly...corners very beautiful. With lawns and shrubbery, and neat rest rooms, and well painted service stations, they are one of the big things that grace the corners of all important points in towns of the United States." The article is illustrated with a small photo showing two gas stations one on the northeast corner of Castro (now Mission Boulevard) and A Street and another station on the opposite corner. That same year there were eleven gas stations listed in the Hayward city directory and twenty listed within the city limits by 1934. Most stations were located along main thoroughfares through town: Castro, First Street (now Foothill), A Street, D Street - easily accessible corners that brought in plenty of business.

Men who worked and owned these stations were car enthusiasts themselves. In the 1930s through the 1950s, many race car drivers, both amateur and professional, could be found tinkering under the hood of a car at one of the local stations one day and competing in a 500-miler up at Oakland Speedway in Ashland the next. For example, Indy 500 winner Bryan Saulpaugh owned a Gilmore Station on Castro Street. His mechanic Leo Doeckel worked on Saulpaugh's racecars at the track for fun but he also worked at the gas station as his regular job. Countless other "gearheads" got their start pumping gas at local stations.

For the most part, the small, neatly designed, service orientated gas stations have been replaced by huge, ultra-modern multiple pump stations that can refuel twenty cars at a time rather than two. During the gas shortage of the 1970s, when consumers were looking for a way to cut costs, gas stations began offering "self service" pumps as well as "full service" pumps in the same station. Now, the full service station is a thing of the past. You do not even need to speak to the station attendant any longer since it is easy to pay at the pump itself.

Looking back on these photos, though, you can get a sense of what it must have been like seventy years ago when there were far less cars on the road and you had to wait fifteen minutes while gas was pumped for you rather than wait fifteen minutes for an unoccupied pump!

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