Ernie's Station preserves history of tiny Whalan, Minn.
In 1991, the station had four signs, and “I’ve collected everything else,” said Ernie Johnson while looking around the garage filled with old items. People enjoy milling through the station for a look at Whalan history, classic cars, old pumps, car signs and hand crank items.
WHALAN, Minn. — If you ask Ernie Johnson a question, he’ll gladly share a story — and history lesson.
He owns the former gas station in Whalan, Minnesota, and is, himself, part of town history. He started restoring the station in 1993. While the old bridge brought visitors from Minnesota Highway 16 to the east end of town, the current bridge drops people on the “main drag” and two blocks from the station.
“I’ve got my first pickup and my first car, now nobody can say that,” Johnson, 76, said with a smile about the vehicles his family gave him in high school. Both are stored inside the station where Johnson continues to work on them.
Today, Johnson drives a “big red truck.” He hauls collected items and makes the drive between Howard Lake in Wright County and Whalan in Fillmore County. While Whalan has always been home, he’s lived with his wife Joan in Howard Lake for 47 years. Johnson remains a member of the church in Whalan, plus he knows plenty of people in town with a population of 67.
The country’s first service station opened in 1913 and by 1935 the United States had over 200,000 gas stations , according to the Smithsonian Magazine. The Whalan station was built in 1917 by Carl and Emil Severson with funds Emil earned while serving in World War I. The station added an office in the 1930s, about when the second owner Aadne Berge took over. Norman Larson owned the station the longest from 1954 to 1991 before Johnson continued the Norwegian-rooted tradition in 1993.
In 1991, the station had four signs, and “I’ve collected everything else,” Johnson said while looking around the garage filled with old items. He still does work in the station, such as restoring his 1937 Plymouth. With only five years of production, Johnson said the Plymouth is unique and hard to find parts for.
While he started with the thought, “I really don’t need a filling station,” Johnson purchased more and more items through garage sales. The history of the previous owners inspired him to look for old gas pumps, from 1912 to the 1940s.
“I got a lot of history in here,” Johnson said.
When a Lanesboro oil dispensing company was demolished, Johnson added to the station’s local history with a selection of Tydol gas globes and signs. The globes had sat in original boxes underneath the company’s floor for years. But still, his favorite signs are Nourse oil ones from a Kansas City-based company.
“I really didn’t go out of my way to collect them that much. I didn’t really go to every sale and all that, it’s just if I seen something I buy it,” Johnson noted.
While many classic car owners drove the bluff-country journey for the station, people also flocked to the Stand Still Parades filled with classic cars. Though the parades stopped during the pandemic, Ernie and Joan coordinated the parade for 11 years.
The station is mainly open in the summer, though the building is simply open when its open. Johnson’s twin brother, Everett, often opens the station and shares his many "did you know this" facts. Visitors return year after year, like a couple who stops by every Fourth of July, and then there are those who traveled from New Zealand.
“There’s so much old stuff to look at, like that sign right there it’s from 1929 and it says, ‘Six is in the same price range as a four.’ Because they (Chevrolet) had six cylinders a lot bigger than anybody else, or most people. And so when Henry Ford saw that he decided to make the eight (cylinder),” Johnson said.
People enjoy milling through the station for a look at Whalan history, classic cars, old pumps, car signs and hand crank items such as a drill press. An old phone booth from the Whalan Post Office also makes its mark in the office portion.
He’ll tell you to listen closely. A short ring then long and another short ring. The sound “carries out” but you’re listening for a specific ring, the one that would have called Johnson’s grandpa, John Bostrack.
“Everything I’ve got in here really works,” Johnson noted.
Despite the items' vintage nature, Johnson enjoys seeing kids learn about and play with the items. He’ll even tell them a story of how people used to text before crank phones. They, of course, used telegraph keys to transmit Morse code.
“Everybody’s tearing stuff down, and this way you can preserve history for a little while,” Johnson said. “It’s important because, yeah, let kids find out what’s going on.”
He’s received car-themed memorabilia, drawings and lots of classic car photographs, many of which are displayed on entire walls in the station. And all are pieces of history Johnson is glad to share.
“Everybody that comes in here they’re just happier,” Johnson said. “They enjoy sitting there and looking at all that stuff.”