Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Near Clearwater, MN: Discovering Bing’s service station collectibles & more August 14, 2014

THE COLLECTION OF VINTAGE GAS PUMPS, signage, phone booths and more is overwhelming, mind-boggling and impressive. To say the least.

The signs in Bing's collection are either original, reproductions or ones painted by him.

The signs in Bing’s collection are either original, reproductions or ones painted by him.

I could have wandered for hours at Bing and Mary Skelton’s property north of Clearwater in central Minnesota to see it all.

Rows of collectibles...

Rows of collectibles…

“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.

Bing poses for a portrait in his garage.

Bing poses for a portrait in his garage.

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.

An overview of Bing's place upon entering the circle drive.

An overview of Bing’s place upon entering the circle drive.

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.

Looking down the short driveway to Stearns County Road 143. Use extreme caution when exiting onto the county road.

Looking down the short driveway to Stearns County Road 143. Use extreme caution when exiting onto the county road.

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.

Among all the signage, I noticed this print of Christ in the garage.

Among all the signage, I noticed this print of Christ in the garage.

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.

Some of the wood sculptures Bing carved.

Some of the wood sculptures Bing carved.

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 wood guitars Bing crafts.

The wood guitars Bing crafts.

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.

I convinced Mary to pose for this sweet portrait with her husband.

I convinced Mary to pose for this sweet portrait with her husband outside the garage. She hugged me before we left.

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.

The wood-burning cookstove Mary used when Joe was growing up.

The wood-burning cookstove Mary used when Joe was growing up.

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.

The Skeltons' working rotary dial phone.

The Skeltons’ working rotary dial phone.

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.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Pausing among the pumps.

Pausing among the pumps.

More collectibles, including horse harnesses, are clumped around the General Store.

More collectibles, clumped around the General Store.

Vintage phone booths are a major part of the collection.

Vintage outdoor public phones are a major part of the collection.

The Sinclair dinosaur has always been one of my favorite icons.

The Sinclair dinosaur is among the numerous gas company signs in Bing’s collection.

Two of my favorite of Bing's carvings, of Native Americans.

Two of my favorite of Bing’s carvings, of Native Americans.

Another favorite icon, the flying red horse.

Bing has several of the iconic flying red horse signs.

FYI: Please check back tomorrow for more photos of Bing’s collection.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Advertisements
 

10 Responses to “Near Clearwater, MN: Discovering Bing’s service station collectibles & more”

  1. Dan Traun Says:

    Love this! I’ve been by here, but have never stopped. Love the telephone booths. What a great collection.

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    One word……ah-maze-ing!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Rena Says:

    There’s no doubt, that we MUST visit there again! Since Beth (our 10-yr old daughter) missed out on the tour, we plan to return soon, so she can walk Bing’s “park” and enjoy the wonder of the whole experience. She likes old stuff – maybe because her parents are old, but maybe because she has an eye for timeless beauty in simple things. And perhaps afterward we’ll round out the feast for our eyes, by following it up with a DQ cone! As always, great job with the photos, Audrey. -Rena

  4. Jackie Says:

    How did you hear of this place Audrey? it’s all quite amazing, have you ever seen the TV show “American Pickers”?, this would be their treasure, but since Bing doesn’t sell they would be clean out of luck. I wonder what will become of all this some day?

    • My brother-in-law and sister-in-law noticed Bing’s place when they were up in May to scout out Sportsman’s Park near Clearwater for the family reunion. Then, the day of the reunion, when my brother-in-law, Randy and another brother-in-law were returning rental tables and chairs to town, they drove right by Bing’s collection. Thankfully they collected a few of us women and we drove back to tour the place.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s