Remember when gas prices were measured in cents, not dollars? If the vintage gas pumps at the Classical Gas Museum could talk, they would tell you about prices and life in gas stations across America from bygone days.
The Classical Gas Museum sits in the small hamlet of Embudo on the “low road to Taos,” aka NM 68, between Santa Fe and Taos. If you aren’t looking for this small quirky gem, you might miss it. It’s on the east side of the road, just past Sugar’s BBQ if you’re heading north; heading south, it’s on your left about two miles after the intersection with NM 75.
The vintage "Rarin' to Go" sign greets you at the Classical Gas Museum — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
You’ll know you’ve arrived by the rusting vintage gas pumps and old cars and the old Frontier Gas sign proclaiming “RARIN’ TO GO.” And if this is your sort of thing, you will be!
Johnnie Meier, museum owner and collector of gas station kitsch, lives on the property. If he’s home, the chain across the driveway will be down and the museum open.
The front and side yards of the two-acre property are a veritable junkyard covered with gas pumps, old cars, auto parts, old railroad and farm equipment and what Meier calls “unidentified stuff.”
How does he get more things to add to the collection? People contact Meier when they have stuff they want to get rid of.
"A farmer will call me up and say, 'Here's a gas pump,'" says Meier, and he will head out to look at it. While he’s there, the caller will start showing him other things they want to get rid of.
"If I think it’s cool and the price is right,” he says, “I’ll load it up with the gas pump.”
A classic white and red Valentine Diner, circa 1960 — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
Front and center on the property is a vintage “Valentine Diner.” These portable roadside restaurants made by Valentine Manufacturing of Wichita, Kan., in the 1950s are mostly gone now; only a handful remain.
Meier discovered the white diner, with its now bright red trim, in a local junkyard. He’s been working to restore it since 2011. He plans to open it as an “ice cream diner” when complete.
Ask him when that will be and he says, “In 2011, I said 2012. In 2012, I said 2013.”
Now he’s saying 2015.
The museum, built to look like an old gas station, features a treasure trove of gas station memorabilia — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
Done checking out the thousands of vintage finds on the outside? It’s time to head for the museum building. If it looks like a gas station from yesteryear, that’s because Meier built it to look that way, using old photos he had as a guide. He even used old building materials to make it authentic.
The front porch is packed with stuff, including an old red Coca Cola cooler circa 1960 that he got from a bar. The insides of the simple wooden structure will wow you. You’ll be greeted by old neon gas signs, light-up signs, antique gas cans, collectible gas station giveaways, old maps, old tools and even old white-wall tires. Meier also displays a lot of vintage photos from old garages.
“It’s a real important part of the display,” he says. “It puts all the artifacts in historical context.”
Vintage neon Chevron sign — Photo courtesy of Steve Collins
The Classical Gas Museum – a fun homage to relics of what Meier calls “roadside culture" – started as a hobby. Ten years after Meier started his vast collection, he opened the museum to the public.
Items here are also for sale, but the enterprising owner prefers to rent them out for films, commercials and fashion shoots. Movies shot in New Mexico that have used his artifacts include No Country for Old Men, Wild Hog and Bless Me Ultima. Better Call Saul, the prequel to Breaking Bad, is also using Classical Gas Museum finds. Besides renting to the film industry, Meier also advises them on the historical accuracy of the time period they’re replicating.
Next time you’re heading between Santa Fe and Taos on NM 68, make time to visit the Classical Gas Museum. The vast collection Johnnie Meier has amassed over almost 30 years will amaze and delight anyone who has any interest in old gas stations, vintage cars, antiques or collectibles.
Stop by and see for yourself.