Many Angelenos have seen the full-size old-style gas station in the Original Farmers Market at Fairfax and 3rd, and perhaps dismissed it as a piece of kitsch. They've also probably seen the many displays and souvenirs that feature the name Gilmore, but probably didn't know about Arthur Gilmore, a rancher who accidentally struck oil in 1900. That was the end of cattle farming for the Gilmores. In addition to oil, their unusual legacy would go on to include racing, baseball, football and lions.
“They were the only oil company in history that everybody liked,” says Charles Seims, co-author of Roar With Gilmore, a lush, oversize, picture-heavy book that catalogs the story of the company and their crazy stunts and ads that gave them over 3500 gas stations in three states — and the kind of publicity that Instagram wannabes can only dream of.
“How many oil companies had circus performers and lion handlers on their payroll?” asks Seims, a Chicago-born former attorney who caught the history bug during his childhood in Pasadena. In 1974, “railway and antique Ford fan” Seims got a call from his friend Norris Pratt, who had cold-called the office of Gilmore wanting to know more about the Gilmores and their background in Southern California.
Directed to “a couple of boxes in the attic” by Arthur's highly-skeptical great-grandson, Pratt and Seims unearthed a treasure trove. They took pictures of all the dazzling Gilmore ephemera, and left thinking that “this oughta be a book someday.”
Some thirty years later, in 2004, Seims met Alan Darr, a man who found a long-abandoned Gilmore station in an unpopulated area of Washington State in the 1970s. This treasure trove led to Darr having what Seims calls “the largest Gilmore collection in the universe.” The pair decided to write that book after all.
“Roar With Gilmore” was one of the memorable phrases dreamed up by the Gilmore’s advertising agency. Some promos were an obvious fit — they sponsored land speed record attempts and Indianapolis 500 racing teams, winning in 1935 and 1937, and building the first midget car racing track in the USA was expensive, but a big success.
But then there were the lions. Gilmore sent circuses up and down the Pacific Coast, and the lions — one of whom was even a celebrity co-pilot — went with them, visiting Gilmore gas stations and drawing photographers and fans everywhere. “Gilmore was sued by a couple of people who had been peed on by them, and one lion handler did sneak two cubs up to his room at a fancy hotel in Seattle,” says Seims.
The company had a “real sense of fun,” says Seims, adding that Gilmore didn’t even insist their stations all looked the same, or even that they should only sell Gilmore products. (When demand spiked, Gilmore even bought Mobil gas to sell as their own).
The Gilmore oil flame didn’t burn for long, though. The first stations opened in 1923, but the main oil field on Fairfax dried up in the early 1930s. Though they had refineries in Long Beach and Vernon, World War II gas rationing and workers moving into aviation and shipyard jobs caused the final stations to close around 1945.
“Arthur's son Earl had taken over the business, but now he was approaching retirement, and I think he was glad to be rid of the oil business,” says Seims. “But he was a smart businessman, and he kept 30 acres of the original 256, bringing other thrills to the area besides the Farmers Market, which first sold fresh fruit and vegetables in 1934.”
As oil memories faded, Angelenos now knew Gilmore for the football field that was home to the L.A. Bulldogs (from 1936-1946), or the celeb-friendly Hollywood Stars baseball team (who played here from 1939-1958). There was a drive-in movie theater too from 1948 until the mid 1970s, and Gilmore even made it onto the big screen themselves: the book has a filmography and pictures of Gilmore stations/stadiums in movies including Sing, You Sinners (1938), Meet John Doe (1941) and even 1941 (1979), which sees a desert Gilmore gas station get wrecked.
The AF Gilmore Co. still runs the Farmers Market (they recently opened a mini-version at Terminal 5 in LAX) and also has its own dedicated archivist. As for Gilmore antiques, mementos and “petrolania,” they fetch top prices at auction. And Seims says there are still some shuttered Gilmore gas stations around. One in Santa Clara is being fully restored to its colorful glory days — save for the pumping of Gilmore gas, of course — “and there may be others around, for all I know.”
Limited to 2000 copies, Roar With Gilmore ($52) is available at the Farmers Market Store, from www.farmersmarketla.com, from Autobooks-Aerobooks in Burbank www.autobooks-aerobooks.com, and direct from the author ($57 including shipping) from PO Box 91, Longview WA 98632.
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