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Living in the Past

By on January 1, 2009
RoadKing Mag

An old gasoline pump caught Mark Reiff’s eye while he browsed at a neighbor’s garage sale. He paid $75 for the vintage Wayne, not knowing how he’d use the red and yellow beauty.

A few months after the purchase, the professional landscaper gazed out his front window, across his suburban front yard, and something about that pump clicked. “I can put a gas station out front,” he thought. Crazy? Maybe. Fun? Definitely. That was eight years, many miles and 35,000 visitors ago.

To begin his unconventional project, Reiff tore out his lawn, trees and white picket fence. When he replaced them with a cement pad, neighbors wondered what was up. When he installed a service island with vintage Sinclair and Texaco Fire Chief pumps, they were really curious. And when a sign went up that read: “Reiff’s Gas Station: Woodland, California: established 1978” (the year he bought his house) it was official. Initially there were skeptics: One neighbor told him she “liked his flowers, but wasn’t sure about his ‘garage.’” Today, folks proudly identify their street as: “the street with the gas station.”

But the gas station was just the beginning of Reiff’s take on his beloved 1950s.

“Back in the ’50s, wherever there was a gas station there was a diner,” he says. To create one, he enclosed his 15×27-foot front porch and anchored the space with a red Formica counter and seven red vinyl-clad stools. Picture windows allow passers-by to view the inside from the street. One can almost imagine Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” coming from the countertop juke box, as the Hamilton Beach milkshake and malt machine whirrs nearby. After a former neighbor asked if she could get a job in the diner, Reiff added a waitress mannequin.

The next addition was a scaled-down 1950s barber shop. The Yolo Theater facade and its reproduction marquee followed. But why? “I had a vacancy,” quips Reiff. “I also recall going to the [now defunct] theater as a kid, and I knew the owners, and the era was right.”

So, has this incredible scene ever caused an accident? Based on skid marks in the street and the tail end of a 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 protruding from the garage, it does seem that a driver lost control while gawking. But, no. The California vanity plate: “EYE 812” (“I ate one too”) offers a hint that it’s just a spoof. What about the vintage plane whose nose lodges in the garage roof? Another of Reiff’s jokes, of course.

Just when the curious think they’ve seen it all, Reiff invites them inside. The tour begins in the former foyer, now an automotive general store. A show-stopper there is a one-of-a-kind, scale-model, C-cab Gilmore tanker truck from the late 1920s. Visitors can also check their time against the automotive store’s Pontiac clock, then step further into the 1950s where the collection of mid-century treasures spills into the working kitchen and the dining room, repurposed in 2007 as a candy shop. Shelves and counters show off chock-a-block boxes and bags, tins and tubs advertising a slew of candy and food products.

By appointment, and for a $5 per-person donation, Reiff welcomes visitors to tour all of his quirky venue. He’s hosted bus tours and is part of the annual Woodland History Walk. The gas station is also a popular day-trip destination for classic car clubs. For the requested donation, Reiff invites club members to use his backyard grill and bar, set amongst vintage signs, sign poles and ’50s memorabilia, or to bring in catered meals, if they choose. With local authorities’ permission, each year he also hosts a Street Bash on the second Saturday in June. The 2007 bash drew 650 people and 150 custom cars.

Reiff continues to have fun with his passion by haunting swap meets, regularly checking eBay, and traveling to collectible and antique shows. He has more porcelain signs and other memorabilia on order.

Since Reiff’s Gas Station is essentially a non-profit venture, its “attendant” is constantly looking for ways to support his imagination. To generate revenue, he’s designed “Reiff’s Gas Station” T-shirts and caps, on sale in the automotive general store. To have something else to offer car clubs and classic car owners, he’s building a ’56 Chevy hot rod tow truck. He’ll use it to stage mock towing scenes that he’ll sell as 8×10 color glossies.

While the red-and-yellow Wayne that started it all isn’t out front, it’s displayed nearby, with some of the 30-something others that Reiff now owns. And how much has that $75 gas pump ultimately cost this ’50s devotee?

“To be honest, I haven’t a clue,” he says. “Let’s put it this way — a lot.”

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