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Historic Crandall, South Dakota, gas station is missing a piece of its past

The gas station, which opened in 1934, was the last in the United States that used hand, known as gravity, pumps. It was a Standard Oil Station from 1934 to 1959, then was privately owned after the main route to Watertown, South Dakota, was changed and the car and truck traffic dwindled.

An old, white gas station with two red pumps in front of his has a Standard Oil Products sign on the front of it.
The Pumps Gallery Station in Crandall, South Dakota, was built in 1934.
Contributed / Dave Swain
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CRANDALL, S.D. — All that Dave Swain wants is a sign. But not just any sign.

Swain, owner of a classic gas station in the tiny, unincorporated community of Crandall, South Dakota, is missing the “Standard Oil Products” sign that was bolted to the outside front wall.

The sign on the gas station was removed a couple of months ago under the veil of darkness. The thief climbed a ladder to unbolt the wooden, rectangular sign that hung just below the gas station roof line.

The Aberdeen resident purchased the gas station in 2005 after admiring it during one of his photo-taking drives across the eastern South Dakota countryside.

The gas station, which opened in 1934, is the last in the United States that used hand, known as gravity, pumps. It was a Standard Oil Station from 1934 to 1959, then was privately owned after the main route to Watertown, South Dakota, was changed and the car and truck traffic dwindled.

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The two nearly 100-year-old large red pumps still stand outside the station, which was closed in 1970. As the story goes, after the station closed Standard Oil Co. wanted the pumps returned, but the owner had kept the receipts from their purchase, proving his ownership, Swain said.

A white, weather gas station with red pumps behind it.
The sign on the Pumps Gallery Station in Crandall, South Dakota, was removed in late June 2022.
Contributed / Dave Swain

Swain also has heard from “old-timers” in the Crandall community that his, typical of many small-town gas stations, was a gathering place in its early days.

“It was known as a poker place. Even people in Aberdeen would come out and play poker,” Swain said. Among them was a high roller who purposely lost several games so he could lull the other players into complacency, then later cleaned them out of their winnings. High-ranking state politicians also stopped at the station to play a round of poker.

“Just great stories,” Swain said.

While the sign is a collectible — someone once offered him a four-figure amount for it — it’s worth to Swain isn’t the monetary value. He wants it back because it’s a significant part of the gas station’s character and was a focal point in thousands of photos taken during the past 17 years.

A brown sign with white letters reads Standard Oil Products.
The Standard Oil Products sign on the Pumps Gallery Station in Crandall, South Dakota, was removed a couple of months ago.
Contributed / Dave Swain

During the past 17 years since he bought the station, Swain has hosted gatherings at the building he calls “The Pumps Gallery Station,” including musical events and fundraisers for Honor Flight, Salvation Army and the Humane Society.

“In the first 10 years I owned the station, I had 5,000 people who signed the guest book,” Swain said.

Swain was notified about the missing sign by a FedEx driver who saw it was missing when he drove through Crandall.

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Swain believes the sign is stored in someone’s garage or outbuilding within a pretty small radius of Crandall, population seven.

He’s put up posters about the missing sign in nearby communities, posted about it on social media, alerted antique buyers and even told “American Pickers,” an antiques show focused on collecting items depicting Americana, about the theft. One of the sign's letters has a bullet hole in the center of it, so it would easily be recognizable if someone tried to sell it, Swain said.

“I just think it’s in someone’s garage,” he said.

He is offering a $500 reward for the return of the sign and doesn’t plan to pursue any legal action if it's returned.

“No questions asked. Leave it at the door, leave it at the neighbor’s house,” Swain said.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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