By Hanaba Munn Welch
Maybe it’s a sign of the times in thriving West Texas, where oil is still king. Whatever the reason, long-abandoned service stations are coming back to life thanks to the energies and enthusiasms of folks who knew those stops when they were in their former glory. Take a road trip with us to some charming icons of yesteryear.
The tall round sign in mostly red and green says H-C Sinclair, but the storybook filling station on U.S. 84 in Snyder doesn’t pump anything but nostalgia. Tank up for free, day or night. Have your picture made with Dino, Sinclair’s charming green dinosaur. It’s a trip back in time.
Like chapels along old pilgrimage routes, iconic filling stations stand on corners in most towns along the main travel routes of yesteryear, fuel pumps missing but easily recognizable per their classic building designs, English cottage style to Deco.
Only a few of America’s old filling stations have been restored to as great a measure of their former glory as the Triangle Sinclair in Snyder, a non-corner cottage-like station shaped to fit a triangular slice of property on the east edge of town. The little brick building with the steep, tall green pointed roof is an especially colorful reminder of an era when pump jockeys were quick to fill ‘er up and check the oil and tires and give the windshield at least a lick and a promise, finishing the job with a wrung-out chamois, dragging it deftly across the glass.
Owned by Lynn Fuller, the restored Triangle is a showplace, and Fuller is still adding bells and whistles. A smiling fresh-faced Sinclair attendant stands in the window—a cardboard cutout figure dressed in a company uniform, complete with a snappy bow tie. In real life, the pump jockey is Travis Lavoie, an employee of Fuller’s in Fort Worth, Fuller’s official home now. Snyder is Fuller’s regular getaway and essentially his hometown. Fuller grew up at nearby Dunn, where an old filling station was at the heart of the community and everyday social life.
On occasion, Lavoie shows up in Snyder at Fuller’s behest to don his Sinclair uniform and ride in parades and otherwise help bring the station back to life.
The Sinclair Triangle project hasn’t been managed totally by Fuller and his hand. Townspeople have helped Fuller paint, and many have brought him collectibles, including quart cans that once held oil. Maybe some still do. They sit on display in an old rack near the station door.
Fuller’s friend Franklin Bryant of nearby Ira, also a restorer of old things, has helped him refurbish the fuel pumps. Glass globes top all three—one touting Power-X, one featuring the Sinclair green dinosaur, and the other with the H-C Sinclair logo.
“We restore stuff together,” said Fuller, whose own experience is impressive. “I was in the Coke machine business when people would nearly give them to you.”
That was 30 years ago. Television shows that showcase the skills of guys like Fuller (he knows the ones on TV) have made it more difficult for him and Bryant and other collectors to find choice items on the cheap. But Fuller keeps looking—especially for anything he can bring back to life to keep enhancing the Triangle.
“It’s the fun of the hunt,” he said.
Besides the three impressive pumps, other vintage equipment—a Coke machine, a “Tireflator” tire inflator, flat-fixing equipment, a double tub on legs for windshield washing, a machine for oil changes, flat-fixing equipment and so on—round out the scene. Inside the station, Sinclair items and other memorabilia fill shelves and adorn the walls. A pay phone hangs by the door to the tiny restroom, where even the bar soap is a brand from yesteryear.
Triangle Sinclair is Fuller’s first filling station, a natural outgrowth of his hobby in restoration.
“I loved that station ever since I was a kid,” he said.
When it went on the market, a friend tipped him off.
“When I bought it, I really meant to keep it up a little bit, paint it,” he said.
One thing led to another, and he still hasn’t found a stopping place, not that he’s looking.
Fuller has learned some interesting things about the station’s past.
“Old folks around here tell me, during Prohibition, $5 would get you two gallons of gasoline and a fifth of whiskey,” he said. “They bootlegged out of it.”
Although an amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended Prohibition in 1933, two years before the station was built, the legend still rings true. Scurry County was dry—no alcohol sales allowed—until 2006.
Later the station served as the Selective Service headquarters.
Bushy Hedges is the name of the Triangle proprietor most people recall. He ran the Triangle in pre-World War II days and also after the war.
“It was actually a Gulf station for three years after the war before Bushy got it back,” Fuller said. “My wife’s granddaddy delivered oil to him back in the 1940s. He was a Sinclair distributor here.”
Such ties aren’t surprising in towns where filling stations were vibrant places that served even children in important ways.
“My wife’s dad, now in his 80s, remembers getting his bicycle tires pumped up there,” Fuller said.
In a fiercely competitive business with more individual players than today, some independent and some not, the companies that built and owned stations tried hard to be friendly and to fit into hometown scenes. It’s one reason for the “house” look of some stations.
Built in 1935, Fuller’s station shows Sinclair’s utilization of a fanciful “cottage” style of architecture that suited diminutive station buildings well, blended with houses if the stations were adjacent to residential neighborhoods, and made them instantly recognizable to motorists driving by, often connoting particular brands via their profiles.
The decorative shelter over two of Fuller’s pumps fits the cottage scene nicely, much like a gazebo complements any house. And that’s not to mention the eye-catching Dino and the sign that anchor the far corner of the narrow triangle.
Phillips also built many a station in the style of a quintessential English cottage, many with prominent chimneys that gave the company a place for both the letter “P” up high and the Phillips 66 shield in a circle of bricks below, an insignia with a following.
Sinclair’s Signature Style
Sinclair built some of its classic stations in the geometric Art Deco style. Portico pillars give these Sinclair stations a vertical emphasis. Tiles laid in the stucco are decorative elements in Sinclair green. The Deco-style Sinclair stations feature roof tiles, also in green, that accent portico parapets and distinguish the edge of the flat roof over the service bays.
An old Sinclair station, now restored, on U.S. 180 through Albany, exemplifies Sinclair Art Deco architecture. Parked at the station is a 1948 Dodge gas delivery truck with the Sinclair name on the tank and Sinclair H-C logos on the cab doors.
Cliff Teinert of Albany owns the historic building and the truck. Underneath Sinclair labeling, the truck has a different identity.
“That truck spent its life in Goldthwaite, Texas, as a Conoco farm delivery truck,” said Teinert. “I redid the engine, the upholstery, everything. I took the Conoco signs off of it.”
Adding the Sinclair name was all the truck needed to look just right in the new setting. After all, stations sometimes changed their stripes too, as when one company would lease a building to another.
Teinert, already the owner and restorer of the historic 1879 T. E. Jackson Warehouse on adjacent property, bought the old Sinclair station from the Paupp family in Fort Worth. The Paupps have ties to Albany and its rich history.
“The Paupp brothers own Chimney Creek Ranch west of town, where the Butterfield Stage had a stop,” Teinert said.
From the days of that famous short-lived St. Louis-to-San Diego overland stage route through the era of the south-to-north cattle drives of the 1870s through the early 1890s through Albany to Kansas and Nebraska, the area has strong ties to early routes of travel established well before the advent of the automobile. For a small town, perhaps it’s no surprise history-conscious Albany has not one but two restored vintage filling stations. At the intersection Highway 180 and U.S. 283 is a fine dark red brick station wearing the bright orange and blue of Gulf Oil.
David Cleveland is the owner.
Like the Sinclair station downtown, Cleveland’s Gulf station sports Spanish roof tiles that define the line of the flat canopy over the pumps, albeit in Gulf blue. The pumps are shiny orange–the showiest elements of the clean-lined little station. Between the two pumps is an oil tank, also Gulf orange, with two hand cranks designed pump the oil into bottles. Cleveland assumes the tanks held oil of different weights.
When Cleveland bought the building 12 years ago, it had no pumps.
“I found a guy that had a collection of them,” Cleveland said. “I talked him into selling me two of them.”
The old pumps were very rusty. Cleveland knew they’d be perfect for his station if only, in his words, the man could “work wonders.” That he did.
Cleveland chose the Gulf motif after researching vintage stations online. He was surprised to find several like his. Most were Gulf.
Cleveland, who grew up in Odessa, worked as an accountant for Union Oil of California in Houston after his graduation from West Texas State in Canyon. He quit Union Oil rather than transfer to the company headquarters in Los Angeles. Now he’s at home in Albany with interests in oil and gas and his real estate business, Clear Fork Realty. The vintage station is a property he rents. For now, it’s seeing action again in the world of petroleum.
“A guy from Singapore has it leased right now,” Cleveland said. “He’s in the oil business. He has some leases in Shackleford County, and he uses it for his local office.”
The station is just no longer a place to pump oil into a bottle or fill up on “THAT GOOD GULF GASOLINE” advertised on one of the tall orange pumps.
Orange was also the Phillips Petroleum color of choice (along with black) when the company attached its brand to stations built to look like steep-roofed English cottages. A vintage station on Main Street in little Turkey, Texas, is equipped with two pumps painted in the Phillips shade of orange. At least once a year the site comes alive, not with the roar of engines but the sounds of Western Swing music in the style of Bob Wills, famous native son of the little town. During Bob Wills Days at the end of April, Buck and Rhoda Coghlan’s station, built in 1929, is a place for music and as much dancing as room allows, traditionally with Buck Coghlan playing his stand-up bass fiddle. The pumps look like they could still pump fuel, but they don’t.
The couple first poured heart and soul into the little building in 2007 and 2008, along with plenty of dollars and good will. They’ve continued to enhance the site since, acquiring a 1948 Flexible bus that matches the famous one that took Wills and his Texas Playboys from town to town when he and his music were at their height of popularity. In the same way Lynn Fuller keeps his 1963 Chevy pickup parked at the Triangle Sinclair station in Snyder, the Coghlans keep the Bob Wills look-alike tour bus on display.
“We got online and found it,” Rhoda Coghlan said. “It’s the same bus, the same year, the same style that Bob Wills had.”
All it lacks is the Wills aroma.
“My husband, Buck, was on the Bob Wills bus in Phoenix,” Rhoda Coghlan said. “He said it smelled of cigar smoke. (The late Bob Wills seemed always to have one clenched in his teeth.) Buck had a dream to find a bus like the Bob Wills bus.”
The Coghlans paid $3,500 for the bus and $4,500 to get it delivered to Turkey—less than they would have paid for Bob Wills’ bus if the rumor is true that it’s sitting in a pasture with a price tag of something like $300,000.
The Coghlans didn’t look far to find someone to spruce up the old bus. Local roofer, Larry Dickerson, who reroofed the Coghlans’ pump shack, also restored the bus. It stays parked alongside the station year-round.
On a smaller scale, a long-sought-after wringer for the pump jockey’s chamois is now part of the Coghlan station collection, found in Mississippi by the Coghlan’s daughter. The wringer makes appearances only during Bob Wills Days.
“It’s a beauty,” Rhoda Coghlan’s daughter said by phone when she found it. “Would you pay a hundred dollars for it?”
“Absolutely,” her mother told her.
When it comes to fixing up an old filling station, authenticity generally comes at a price, not to mention plenty of work. Indeed, most owners can expect their pocketbooks to look like they’ve been through the wringer by the time they get their stations convincingly restored and fully outfitted.
Like the Coghlans, Fuller has spent plenty on the Triangle Sinclair.
“You’ve got to be in it for the enjoyment of it and not for profit,” said Fuller, who wishes only that he could break even on what he spends to keep his station presentable and intact.
The latest electronic gadgetry protects Fuller’s station—not cheap to manage, even though security is his specialty. After starting in law enforcement, Fuller worked the last 15 years of his primary career as assistant directory of security for Fort Worth’s Bass Brothers. So far, the Triangle has suffered no significant vandalism.
Fuller does accept donations, most notably from the motorcyclists who flock to the station when Snyder has its yearly bike fest. Fuller takes their pictures with Triangle Sinclair as the backdrop and prints them on site. They’re usually glad to put a two or three dollar gratuity in his tip jar.
“We had 4,000 here last year,” he said. “I guarantee you, 3,000 of them stopped last year to get pictures. When we have those events, I just kind of sit up there and talk to the people.”
People in Snyder apparently appreciate what Fuller has done with the landmark.
“I love sitting up there on Saturdays,” Fuller said. “Everybody in town honks, waves.”
The station is a popular place for class reunions, particularly for pictures. A shop across the street serves sweets and offers additional nostalgia and space for ex-students to gather.
“We’ll have an old car from their class year,” Fuller said.
Fuller takes a lot of ribbing about the 29.9 price he keeps hanging on his 1960s-vintage sign frame. When friends insist he sell them fuel at the posted price, he offers them a few ounces in a quart jar—not a full jar, at that.
It’s the sort of fun you can have with an old filling station, especially when you bring it back to life the way Fuller has in Snyder and the way the Coghlans have been able to make things swing every April in Turkey.
Even the stations that do no more than sit quietly and look good on the outside illustrate lively chapters in the history and development of oil companies across the United States. It’s worth noting that at a still-functioning mission-style corner Conoco station in Burkburnett, Texas, a colorful bas-relief magnolia adorns the parapet over the pumps, a vestige of the days when the station no doubt belonged to Magnolia Petroleum Co., before Magnolia turned into Mobil and the magnolia blossom turned into a winged red Pegasus.
For the astute student of vintage stations, they’re to be discovered everywhere. Even the most neglected station buildings are recognizable. So are most of the ones that have suffered insensitive remodeling. Amid rubble and disrepair and ugly additions, the unmistakable iconic architecture still stands out. The old stations define America’s main traffic arteries of yesteryear. Most could spring back to life at the drop of a hat or pump jockey’s billed cap.
Sometimes it happens—just never without money and passion.