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Ellwood Gas Station

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An almost forgotten landmark in Goleta, the Barnsdall-Rio Grande gas station is a reminder
of a simpler time. While the building is showing it’s age, it’s still a unique structure, and it’s
elegant architecture is still evident today. *

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Oil was big money, and the Barnsdall-Rio Grande oil company was making plenty of it at Ellwood.
In 1928, an oil strike quickly made the company a major player on the New York Stock Exchange,
and almost overnight, they were the county’s biggest taxpayer.
At one time, Ellwood was the most productive oil field in the world, yielding over 100 million
barrels of oil in over three decades.

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Most “filling stations” at the time were plain, unattractive, boxlike structures. But when
they decided to build a station on the State Highway, adjacent to their booming fields,
they wanted it to be a showpiece.

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An exclusive architecture firm out of Los Angeles was selected and the product of their
efforts was completed and opened for business in 1929.
A classic example of Spanish colonial revival architecture.

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Standing 40 feet high, the white plaster walls, blue and white ceramic tiles and red
mission roof tiles made quite a flagship.
In the years to come, the station would win several awards for it’s beauty.

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Before long, the Barnsdall- Rio Grande added a restaurant next door.
By 1931, it was called “Wheeler’s Inn”, named for the husband and wife that ran it.
Eventually they added a family apartment and a liquor store.
This location became a popular meeting place for locals and travelers alike.
A fairly regular customer at the station and the restaurant was William Randolph Hearst,
who made Ellwood a midway stop between Los Angeles and his little place up at San Simeon.

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This is Wheeler’s son, Marshall, with his sweet 1929 Oldsmobile.
Years later, in 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled a nearby oil field causing no real
damage to the facility. It did have a devastating effect on Wheeler’s Inn however. After an
initial swarm of curious sightseers, fears of a repeat attack and local blackouts forced
the Wheeler’s to close up shop and relocate to 37 E. Victoria St. in Santa Barbara.

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The rerouting of Highway 101 was completed in 1947, bypassing Ellwood and isolating the
Barnsdall-Rio Grande filling station from the steady flow of traffic. The customer volume
dwindled severely, and by the early 1950’s, the station was closed.

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It did relive it’s former glory for one brief moment in 1980, when United Artists
used it in a scene for a remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, starring
Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

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On a recent visit, we found a construction crew surveying the building.
The good news is, the present owner hopes to restore it to it’s former glory and make it a
retail business again!
Hopefully they will succeed and this piece of Goleta history will live on for future generations.

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Old photos and information provided by Gary Coombs and Phyllis Olsen, from their
book, “Sentinel at Ellwood”, 1985.