The Northwoods Petroleum Museum, located 2 miles north of Three Lakes at Highway 45 and Wykowski Road, houses a 4,000-piece collection of golden-age petroleum collectibles.
The Northwoods Petroleum Museum, located 2 miles north of Three Lakes at Highway 45 and Wykowski Road, houses a 4,000-piece collection of golden-age petroleum collectibles.
“I swear to God, if my kids, when they’re 18, if they come to me and say, ‘Dad, I love pumping gas. I love getting up in the morning, I love grabbing the handle, I love the smell of the gas station,’ I’d say, ‘Go for it,’ because if you love it that much at 18, he’s probably going to end up owning 25 gas stations by the time he’s 30.”  —Dana White, American businessman



Well, maybe not 25 gas stations, but Three Lakes resident Ed Jacobsen, owner/curator of the Northwoods Petroleum Museum, owned 10 service stations during his oil industry career under the Enco, Amoco and Shell banners.

Pumping his first gallon of full-service gasoline in his native Illinois as a teen, Jacobsen fell in love early with the nation’s petroleum industry during America’s post-World War II car culture heydays of Sunday country drives, iconic two-lane adventure highways like U.S. Route 66, neon-festooned drive-in restaurants and theaters, and advertising admonitions to “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet” and “Discover America Best By Car.”

“America was built on the petroleum industry — the roads, the cars,”?Jacobsen recalled. “You’d use your car to cruise drive-in to drive-in, and then you’d go to the drive-in theater. Your car was just a part of  your persona. People say, ‘How many miles you’d get to the gallon back then?’ We didn’t care. It was 35 cents a gallon!”

Like many of his generation, Jacobsen was captivated by the nation’s burgeoning petroleum industry in its now-nostalgic golden age.

“I think, for some reason, I was born with oil in my blood,” he explains. “I wanted to work in a gas station when I was 14 — and I did.  So many guys my age started working in a gas station. Now, the kids start working at McDonald’s, but back then it was a gas station. I just enjoyed it. You’d learn how to pump gas and then go up from that — learn how to change a tire, put a tire on a rim, do an oil change. It was an accomplishment. The boss would say you did well and you felt good about it. It just stuck with me. I think that’s what makes people hanker for those days. They remember that.”

For younger generations, the nation’s petroleum industry has been winnowed down to an impersonal shadow of its former self — self-service fuel dispensing, electronic pay-at-the-pump transactions, and a speedy in-and-out convenience store marketing focus on the sale of milk, bread, soda, salty snacks, beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

But in earlier decades, the petroleum business offered a much different, more personal experience. 

If you’re on the slippery downward slope toward 60 like I am, it’s easy to turn nostalgic as you recall the colorful halcyon days of full-service filling stations, then aptly also known as service stations where you got, well, actual service.

Their primary business was servicing your car and selling gasoline.

You’d pull up to the pump and roll over the  driveway signal hose, the “ding-ding” of the activated bell chime announcing your arrival.

Genial, trustworthy, bantering first name-basis guys in Amoco, Sunoco, BP and Citgo uniforms — Nick, Mickey, Ray, Steve, Dick and Al in my own lengthening memory — would hustle out to the pump island to greet you as you sat in your car, offering service and small talk with a smile. 

They would fill your gas tank, check fluid levels and tire inflation, and deftly squeegee the car windows clean in a few syncopated hand movements worthy of Kenneth Schermerhorn at the helm of the Milwaukee Symphony.

In the decades before Kwik Trip,?Casey’s or Holiday  Stationstores, if you were really lucky there might be a quarter Coke machine between the exterior service bay doors, or a Lilliputian selection of gum, candy bars, snack crackers and potato chips in the tiny station office. 

Spartan exterior-entry restrooms were locked with a key and decidedly unglamorous affairs, outfitted with the no-nonsense basics of toilet paper, hand soap and a continuous-roll cloth towel dispenser. 

Competition was keen in those days among a plethora of brands vying for your loyal 35-cents-a-gallon patronage. 

The brand names from my childhood could fill a thick book – Cenex, Standard/Amoco, Texaco, Co-op, Phillips 66, Conoco, Sunoco, DX, Gulf, Union 76, Holiday, Sinclair, ARCO, Citgo, Mobil, Shell, Deep Rock,  Hometown, Pure, Skelly, Consolidated,?Speedway, SuperAmerica, Marathon, Vickers, Kerr-McGee, Freeway, Clark, Enco, OK Oklahoma, Total, Beacon, Spur, Purple Martin, Zephyr, Pugh and White Flash.

In appreciation for your loyal patronage, you’d often leave the fill-up with some sort of freebie premium as an inducement to return — coin banks and a wide array of toys for the kids, and glassware, knife sets, tableware, calendars, colorful road maps and merchandise redemption S&H Green Stamps for the adults.

Jacobsen loved everything about the neighborly service stations back in their pre-1973 glory days.

“It was a friendly place,”?he recalled. “Working at the local gas station, you knew everybody in town. There was a more personal touch. I’d have two or three minutes with a hundred people a day, 200 people a day. I liked that. It was pretty nice. It was a business where you could really meet a lot of people and find out what was going on.”

Jacobsen, “attracted to go into the oil business,”  headed north of the border to Milwaukee for college studies with an eye toward landing a career in the petroleum industry.

“I went to college at Marquette and I wanted to get a job with an oil company, so I got one degree in marketing and one in management because I knew that’s what they needed — marketing and management.” 

To finance his university studies, Jacobsen landed a fortuitous part-time job working at a busy seven-bay Enco Auto Service Center near Currie Park at Highway 100 and Capitol Drive in Milwaukee, one of several large flagship Enco “Happy Motoring!” car care center facilities dotting the metro Milwaukee area. 

“I  enjoyed that,” Jacobsen recalls of his work at Enco (later rebranded as Exxon), one of multiple regional marketing banners operated by Irving, Texas-based Humble Oil  —  Esso, Enco, Humble, Carter and Oklahoma among them. “It was a getaway from college. You’d go work your eight-hour shift — pump the gas, drive the pickup truck we had for car-jumping. I enjoyed that.”

Enco wanted to hire Jacobsen during his junior year at Marquette — he would graduate in 1963 —  giving him a year’s seniority tenure for working at the Enco station.

“I was offered jobs with Mobil and Shell, but I decided to go with Enco because I already had a year in,” he said.

Originally hired to help manage Enco’s Milwaukee area operations, Jacobsen was later transferred to Enco’s expanding operations down in metro Chicago, working with salesmen and dealers.

But after six years, and with promotion to an Enco regional office in Memphis looming, Jacobsen discerned that his heart, his passion, was back at the service station. 

“I didn’t like corporate life,” he recalled. “I didn’t like saying yes when I meant no. You couldn’t turn down a promotion back then, if you did you were done, so I quit and bought my own gas station. I loved it.”

Ultimately, Jacobsen owned and operated 10 service stations in the western suburbs of Chicago between 1968 and 2003 at Glen Ellyn, Oak Brook, Oakbrook Terrace, Carol?Stream,?Wheaton and West Chicago — a maximum of six stations concurrently at any one time — first under the Enco banner and later, with the 1977 demise of Enco in the Midwest, three each under the Amoco and Shell banners. 

Jacobsen also operated a nine-wrecker towing business in Carol Stream, Action Team Towing, from 1975-’85. 

“I loved driving the tow trucks,” he recalled. “That was my favorite thing. When you got there they were in the ditch and when you left they weren’t. There was an accomplishment that you felt.”



Changing times


But as singer-songwriter Bob Dylan famously crooned as a melodic cautionary tale, the times they were a-changin’ — as much for American society as for the nation’s petroleum industry.

Multiple major upheavals hit the American oil industry in rapid-fire succession in the early to mid 1970s, first with the sharply-rising prices and gasoline shortages sparked by the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, and then with the advent and popularization of self-service dispensing. The business changed further with the rise and fast spread of the convenience store (C-store) model.

“The switch in culture started in 1973 when the gas shortage came in,” Jacobsen recalled. “That changed the attitude toward dealers. We were their friends when we sold gas at 35 cents a gallon, but when the price went to 70 cents almost overnight we became the enemies. With the introduction of self-service to reduce operational costs, we got further and further away from our customers. Then self-serve wound up with convenience stores selling bread, milk and eggs, cigarettes. Things started becoming just a business. It wasn’t the friendly atmosphere that I liked from before.”

In the end, economics and changing consumer preferences won out.

“A gallon of gas, you made four cents,” he recalled. “Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Twinkies, it’s a margin of 35%. You make a lot of money on a bag of chips. The industry changed and convenience stores became the thing. I got squeezed out by people selling bread and milk and eggs. I was a car guy.”

Today, the vast majority of the nation’s 120,000 gas stations are self-service. 

After selling his last station, an Amoco purchased in 1983 at Roosevelt and Main in Glen Ellyn, Jacobsen went into the coffee business as a six-store Gloria Jean’s Coffee franchisee. 



The collecting bug bites

It wasn’t until after Jacobsen got out of the oil business that he started collecting petroleum industry memorabilia, popularly known as “petroliana.”

“It was when I got out and I missed the stuff that I started buying it all,”?Jacobsen recalled. “I started buying some cans and I wound up buying a bunch of signs.” 

A singular circa-1915 Gargoyle oil tin quickly grew into the 4,000-piece collection that today comprises the 4,000-square-foot Northwoods Petroleum Museum (northwoodspetroleummuseum.org), located at 2141 Wykowski Road, 2 miles south of Three Lakes on Highway 45.?

The museum’s collection, bright with the attention-grabbing primary colors favored by the oil companies, is a veritable visual feast for the senses — Shell’s yellow scallop, Sinclair’s kelly green apatosaurus “Dino,” Standard’s patriotic red, white and blue torch and oval, Mobil’s iconic red Pegasus, and the fire engine red “big, bright Texaco star.”

As Jacobsen and I tour the museum, retro nostalgic background music — “Short Shorts,”?“Tequila,” “(Who Wrote) The Book of Love,” “At the Hop,” “Yakety Yak” and “Rockin’ Robin” — contributes to the museum’s time-traveling aesthetic.

“The best stuff is in here,” Jacbosen tells me, confiding that the spillover of his collection fills a warehouse across the road. “I never saved anything when I was in the gas station business — nothing in here came from my own gas stations. I started getting enamored with signs and cans. I started collecting it to be in my garage, in my office. It just kept growing and growing and growing, and then I really started getting into it, going to auctions and estate sales and car shows like Iola.” 

Ed’s passion for petroliana shifted into overdrive when he made a massive 149-sign buy from a collector in Florida. 

“I needed a semi to bring them back up,” he recalled. “That’s when I got into it big time.”

By 2005, Jacobsen’s fast-growing collection had swelled the walls of his homes in Madison and Three Lakes, as well as his North Woods boathouse. 

“They were full,” he said. “I came home one day and my wife said, ‘I found a building for you to buy.’ I looked at it and thought, ‘[Expletive], this place is way too big. I’ll never fill it.’ But I bought it and my collection was way too big for the place so I had to buy the building across the street. I had a lot more than I thought when I bought the place.”

Jacobsen said his wife, Sue Sadowske, herself a collector of faerie memorabilia and antique furniture, has been “very supportive” of his petroliana passion and the museum.  

“She knows collecting,” he said. “She knows all about tourism and how to bring people from Milwaukee to Three Lakes. That’s her forte. She’s been a lot of help.” 

Far from being done collecting, Jacobsen, 80, is still buying. 

“The last piece I bought is always my favorite piece ’til I buy another one,” he said. “I still buy. People come by with stuff, and if I fall in love with it I’ll buy it.”

Occasionally, Jacobsen will sell an item from the museum collection, but it’s an admittedly rare occurrence, his last sale being a “very rare big Pugh sign” from Racine’s late Pugh service station chain.

“A guy from Racine wanted to buy it,” Jacobsen recalled. “He knew the Pugh family, so he wanted to buy the sign, so I sold it to him. I’ll sell things like that Pugh sign to people who have collections. A lot of people want to buy things, but I’m very selective of what I sell and to whom. I don’t like to sell to people who resell things — buy low and sell at a big markup. A production crew from ‘American Pickers’ was here but I didn’t want to sell them anything.”



Tourism draw

Since the museum’s July 2006 debut, Jacobsen has hosted more than 40,000 visitors from all 50 states and 15 foreign countries, including Great Britain, Scotland, France and Jamaica. Some visitors have come from as far afield as Hong Kong and Africa.

The Northwoods Petro­leum Museum averages some 2,500 visitors annually, most drawn from the Midwest. 

Jacobsen says the main audience for the Northwoods Petroleum Museum and its “very, very colorful” golden age petroliana archive is generational, skewing heavily toward Gen-X’ers, Baby Boomers and the fast-thinning ranks of the “Greatest Generation” who rose to the twin challenges of the Great Depression and World War II.

“The 20-year-olds don’t have any interest,” he said. “Heck, my own kids aren’t even interested. A lot of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s are attracted to this stuff. It’s part of a bygone era. You’re not gonna see anything come back like it was once. We all remember it. Maybe in another 20 years probably nobody’s gonna care, but right now they remember.”

Jacobsen says men and women approach the museum and its collection differently.

“Women are more appreciative of the layout and the way it’s displayed,” he noted. “Men tend to look at the individiual items — they look at the signs and the globes and all that — but the women look at the overall picture.”

The museum is open from noon to 2 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and year-round by appointment. Admission is free.

Donations in support of the museum are gladly accepted.

“I’ve never made any money here, but that’s not the idea,” Jacobsen said, explaining that memories and sharing history are the foundational driving forces behind the museum and his collecting passion. “Right after the museum first opened I was asked, ‘What do you hope people learn from this?’ I said, ‘I hope people don’t learn anything. I hope they remember.’ That’s what it’s all about. People come in here and say, ‘I remember this. I remember that.’ I enjoy sharing it. There’s so many things for people to ask questions about. It’s interesting.”

For Jacobsen, the museum is very much a return to his roots.

“I’m back to the old days pumping gas at the filling station, meeting a hundred people a day, talking to them for three minutes,” he says. “It kind of brings me back full circle.”