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In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

Oil In The Blood: Ed Jacobson's Northwoods Petroleum Museum

Ed Jacobsen
Northwoods Petroleum Museum

The summer tourism season is over, but for one Northwoods museum, that doesn’t change much.  WXPR Contributor Emily Bright reports on one man’s singular passion for gasoline...that led to an unusual museum.  

The gas station. It’s a familiar place, but when you’re filling your tank, how often do you stop and think about where you are when what you’re doing?

“That’s the thing about gasoline is when you buy it you don’t see it, feel it, taste it, hear it…it’s just an anonymous product that goes into your tank and quite frankly 5 minutes after you leave you’re probably not sure what that brand was.”

That’s Ed Jacobsen, or “Jake the Oil Guy”: the man behind the Petroleum Museum in Three Lakes. Jacobsen loves cars. At the height of his career, he owned six gas stations in Chicago.

“So the oil companies started coming out with things that you could have in your house to remind you of their product like salt and pepper shakers, cigarette lighters, hot pads, sewing kits," Jacobson describes, "and they started producing toys for kids. The kids range from 9 to 15. Well, at 16 they were gonna get a driver’s license. And if you put your money in a bank with Texaco or Shell on it, maybe you’d remember that when you turned 16.”

That’s the stuff that Jacobsen collects: the signs, pumps, and products made by the petroleum industry. He left the business in 1985, but afterwards, he just…wasn’t happy.

“So I started thinking, why am I not happy?" He relates, "And it’s because I just wasn’t around this stuff. So I started collecting, just for myself.”

“How many items do you have?” I ask.  

“I stopped counting at about 4000 items,”he says.

“So did you start the museum because the collection got too big for your house?”

“That’s is, you got it right on the…. …my wife was just getting…we were living in the gas station and I had all the pumps in the heated garage and her car had to sit outside and here we are in northern Wisconsin and she said weren’t these pumps meant to be outside and I said not my pumps.”

Almost 30,000 visitors have come through the Petroleum Museum since Jacobsen bought the building ten years ago. When you walk in, Elvis is likely to be playing, and the air has that familiar gasoline smell. There’s lots of color, LOTS of neon.

"A lot of people say oh I got to bring my grandson and I say no bring your grandfather," Jacobson explains.   "Your grandson’s not gonna care that much about it, but Grandpa, he’s gonna stay all day.”

The items are meant to be eye-catching. The museum has gas pumps dating from 1899 to the 1970s, some topped with glass globes that look like crowns.

“They were very ornate,” says Jacobsen, “because they’d attract people to the gas stations and they were lighted. unfortunately they were shot out on Sat nights by people with bb guns, and these were attractive targets.”

Other items made my gas companies weren’t so popular, like a set of 12 ash trays with pin-up girls made by Texaco in 1953.

“They actually bombed. The women customers and the wives of the dealers just hated it.”

Those were discontinued after 6 months. Jacobsen’s detailed knowledge of gas station collectibles is impressive.  The museum is his way of continuing his passion for the industry, even after he’s left it.  He says there are 17 other petroleum museums, but his is the only one that deals with the gas station end of things. And His collection has drawn some attention. The Cohen brothers approached him about using four of his gas pumps in one of their movies, but he turned them down.

“I talked to some fellow collectors in the industry and they said ‘do not do that’ the movie companies do not take care of anything," he explains. "So I told them it was just logistically impossible for me to get the pumps there.”

Jacobsen’s Petroleum Museum is a labor of love. Admission is free. It’s open in the afternoon, 5 days a week, with a sign on the door and website that reads, “I may do some traveling in the winter, so call ahead.” But generally, he’s there.

“It sounds funny, but I think I’ve got oil in my blood.”

At 73, he doesn’t show any signs of running out of gas.

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