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May 09

Fill 'er Up

Posted on May 9, 2021 at 12:38 PM by Ken Kocher

In March of 1905, the Madisonian reported that Demus Anderson was the proud owner of Madison’s first automobile. They added that Bill Cavin was the chauffeur teaching Demus “how not to let it get away already.” Of course, locals were not the only ones plying the roads in these new machines, so were tourists such as the two men, one from Florida and one from England, who managed to overturn their touring car near the Appalachee River. Walt Few, who pulled the vehicle back to the road with a team of mules, expressed the skepticism of many concerning cars saying he’d “take mules every time.”

Yet automobile ownership in Morgan County, Georgia, and the United States, continued to grow. By 1911, the cost of an automobile began to come within reach of the typical household. TheMain Street downtown Madison c.1915 word “automobile” shows up in local papers just once in the 1890s. The following decade it appears 23 times. By the 1910s there are 608 references and the 1920s sees use of the word 845 times. This explosion of automobile ownership and use would forever change the landscape of cities and towns and, in Madison, especially downtown. This new technology would change the way streets were used, introduce new types of businesses, and create new building forms.

One automobile related activity, the buying and selling of gasoline, would heavily impact downtown Madison. This installation of Madison Moments will focus on elements of the early days of gasoline sales that changed the streetscape of the time but that have been largely lost to time. Nonetheless, those changes set the stage for further evolution of gasoline sales and changes to downtown Madison that are still visible today.

Vason Bros ad

Where would Demus have purchased gas for his car in 1905? Drug stores or general stores were some the first to have gasoline, originally as a cleaning solvent, for sale as evidenced by a 1912 Vason Bros. drug store ad in the Madisonian. Carbine’s hardware store sold gasoline engines, so presumably they would have carried gasoline as well. Early car dealers were also sources of gasoline. W.H. Adams, while the 1910s still primarily a furniture merchant, was selling Buicks and along with them tires, supplies, and gasoline. The Madison Machine Works which became the Madison Auto & Machine Company also sold gas.

Madison Auto and Machine Company ad

How was gasoline sold? The drug stores and general stores mostly likely sold cans of gasoline which contained as much as five gallons. As demand grew, a higher capacity method of storing and dispensing gasoline was called for. The common solution was to have a barrel of gasoline on hand, usually located around the back of a building or in the corner of a garage. Both can and barrel sales required pouring the fuel into the fuel tank through a funnel lined with a chamois filter to remove impurities. Eventually, rubber hoses were attached to raised tanks for a more convenient transfer. Handcarts with pumps and tanks were available as well. One such cart can be seen in an ad for Madison Auto & Machine Company. Whether they actually used one is unknown.

The dispensing method that came to dominate gasoline sales by the late 1910s and early 1920s was the curb pump. This was a complete refueling system, and was composed of a gasoline pump, dispensing hose, flow meter and underground storage tank. As the name suggests, these pumps were located just beyond the edge of the street with the tanks buried beneath the street. Madison’s 1921 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows eight businesses with curb pumps – some that may surprise you.

1921 Madison Sanborn Fire Insurance Map

The logical spots are the auto dealerships and garages: Ben S. Thompson, Ford (read here about these pumps); W.H. Adams, Buick; E.L. Duckworth, Chalmers & Maxwell; and Madison Auto & Machine Co., Hudson & Essex. Also fairly logical is Ab Perkins’s Vulcanizing Shop (tire repair and sales) though on the map it is still shown as a harness shop. Less expected are the pumps in front of Vason Bros. Drug Store and Hammond’s Pharmacy. The pump at Hammond’s was likely put in when the building was Leake Hardware. While these locations may seem odd, recall drug stores originally sold gas by the can and likely expanded to curb pumps to retain this lucrative trade. The most unexpected is the pump at Shaw-Hemperly Undertakers! However, this location becomes less of a surprise after seeing their 1917 opening announcement listing their sales and services: “Funeral Directors and Embalmers; Buggies, Wagons and Harness; Saxon and Cole Automobiles.”

Hemperly Undertaking

WH Adams Buick

 As one can imagine, the convenience that curb pumps offered to automobile owners came with some downsides. Lines of waiting vehicles alongside curbsides became nuisances, especially as more and more vehicles took to the road. As accidents became more frequent, curb pumps began to be seen as a significant public hazard not to mention this was all taking place on the public right-of-way. By the early 1920s, gasoline sales began to transition to drive-in stations generally dedicated to a specific oil company. The first of these in Madison will be the focus of some upcoming blogs.


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