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The patio at Mark and Vickie Mendenhall’s Buellton home reflects their love of petroliana and midcentury artifacts, a partial legacy left by Mark’s father, Jack Mendenhall. (Note the San Diego Presidio Park sign at lower left.) Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Mendenhall’s Museum in Buellton fuels midcentury nostalgia

We had never heard the word “petroliana” until we stepped into the Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana. The museum is tucked away on a side street in tiny Buellton, about a minute east of the junction of highways 101 and 246.

For others unenlightened, petroliana is memorabilia that centers on the gasoline industry — items such as gas pumps, oil cans and tins, porcelain signs and other items long-forgotten but now considered treasures from bygone eras. 

At Mendenhall’s, you’ll get a more-than-hefty dose of nostalgia and lessons in our cultural past when you step into this petroliana sanctum sanctorum.

Among its treasures are 2,000 store and gas stations signs, 1,500 license plates, 400 gas pump globes, 100 gas pumps and 40 neon signs, all telling the story of America’s century-plus obsession with the automobile.

Mark Mendenhall, owner and operator of Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana in Buellton, stands with the 1932 Ford roadster in which his father, Jack, broke a land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1991. Mark came within less than 1 mph of breaking the record again in the same car in 1996. He is rebuilding the engine to try for a land-speed record in another class. Photo by Jerry Ondash

All of this is owned and operated by Mark and Vickie Mendenhall, lifelong residents of the Santa Ynez Valley.

“This was all started by Mark’s father, Jack,” Vickie told us as we wandered from section to section, futilely trying not to miss a thing.

Jack Mendenhall was a legend in the valley and auto racing circles. In 1991, he broke the land-speed record by clocking 207 miles per hour in a 1932 Ford roadster nicknamed Sally the Salt Dancer at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Son Mark came within less than 1 mph of breaking another record five years later in the same car.

“The record by then was 210.7 miles per hour,” he said. “I did 210.1.”

Jack owned a service station and automotive business in Buellton for years. He retired in 1978 and “went out on the road collecting,” Mark said.

Vickie Mendenhall explains the workings of gas pumps from the early 20th century. The museum has an extensive collection of gasoline industry artifacts that illustrate America’s love of the car culture. Photo by Jerry Ondash

After Jack died on the Fourth of July, 2005, Mark took up the mantle. Since then, he has augmented the collection.

“I’ve added a lot to the collection since he passed,” Mark said. “We have 10 vintage cars, old radios, music boxes, barber chairs, a beer can collection — even motel keys. If you accidently took the key with you, you could drop it in any mailbox and it would get back to the motel.”

Also on display: early electronics, traffic signs, phone booths, early cellphones (cleverly augmenting steering-wheel mobiles that hang from a ceiling), and plenty of logos, signs and slogans created by midcentury Mad Men.

In all, there are about 10,000 artifacts. Mark knows this because he catalogued every item three years ago.

He and Vickie have carried the petroliana theme to their home on the museum grounds. Standing on their second-floor deck, visitors will find a huge, revolving, blue-and-orange Union 76 ball within arm’s length. When Vickie remodeled the kitchen, she continued the 1950s memorabilia theme with bright red cabinets that match a Texaco sign and other artifacts of the midcentury era.

The museum is open, Mark said, but reservations are necessary. For a fully guided, 90-minute tour, call 805-689-2402.

For more photos of the museum, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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