THE COLLECTION OF VINTAGE GAS PUMPS, signage, phone booths and more is overwhelming, mind-boggling and impressive. To say the least.
I could have wandered for hours at Bing and Mary Skelton’s property north of Clearwater in central Minnesota to see it all.
“All” is a massive collection of service station memorabilia coupled with those outdoor public phones, horse harnesses and so much more gathered during the past 15 years. That time span could be longer. Bing, real name Charles, isn’t precise on when he began amassing this stuff.
But one thing is certain. Bing welcomes visitors with the hospitality of long-time friends. His warmth is genuine, his enthusiasm unbridled. He grew up in the 1950s and appreciates items from that era. He likes Elvis and filling stations and, obviously, lots of other stuff from the past.
Upon arriving at Bing’s place, discovered while attending a family reunion at Sportman’s Park just down the road and around the corner, I simply stood and took in the scene before me. You just cannot believe what you are seeing.
And even more unbelievable is that nothing is for sale nor does Bing charge for the joy and privilege of viewing his collection. People from all over the world find his place, tucked behind a hedge row and trees, hidden from Stearns County Road 143, just off 27th Avenue East off CR 75. If you’re not observant, you could easily miss this attraction that sits nearly atop the roadway.
It didn’t take me long, though, to notice a particular print among all the signage and collectibles in a garage that carries the aged scent of motor oil. There, above a May 1989 calendar page from St. Augusta Oil Co., to the left of a 2011 Gas & Oil Collection auction bill from Perham and near a portrait of a much younger Bing and Mary, hangs a portrait of Christ.
“It’s our Lord and Saviour,” Bing tells me as I remark on the image by artist Bette Meyers.
And I tell him I know and it is then that this collector shares his faith, terming himself a “caretaker for Jesus,” his collection a “calling card” to draw people in.
Not that he pushes his faith upon visitors. I did not sense that at all. Rather, by simply being Bing—a man who is genuinely welcoming, interesting and kind—he is witnessing. He’s not boastful either, just delighted to share his collecting passion.
His wife, Mary, who exited their adjacent home to rest on a chair in the cool of the garage, confirms that. Bing doesn’t like to talk about himself, she tells me. Not until Mary reveals it, do I learn that her husband molds metal to rebuild the oldest of the gas pumps on their property. And he paints signs and has created items, like guitars and sculptures from wood.
The talents of this man with past work experience on a mink ranch, fighting forest fires, in plumbing, sheet metal and more, are many. Mary seems his strongest supporter. She’s as kind and friendly and as gentle in spirit as her husband.
When I inquire as to her talent, the couple’s 45-year-old son, Joe, who has arrived at his parents’ place to tinker on a car, pipes up that his mom can cook. She confirms that and eventually father and son lead me into a lean-to off the garage. Inside rests a mammoth blue cookstove that Mary used while Joe was growing up. Lots of pizzas baked inside that oven.
During Joe’s youth, his dad collected antiques, but then Bing sold them all. And now he’s amassed this “new” collection.
Then I am treated to one more glimpse into the past after spotting a black rotary dial phone in the garage.
That phone doesn’t work. But Joe tells me his folks have a working rotary dial wall phone inside the house. When I look doubtful, Mary takes me inside to view the vintage phone. I pick up the receiver, hear a dial tone.
I am a believer. Exactly what Bing hopes.
FYI: Please check back tomorrow for more photos of Bing’s collection.
© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling