Square Deal Service Station


Ames Daily Tribune Community Life article by Joyce Manchester, March 11, 1978

Recently a national organization called the National Gasohol Commission was formed to promote the use of gasohol, a mixture of alcohol and gasoline, in the interest of conserving petroleum energy -- but the idea isn't new in Ames.... The idea is far from new or innovative.  In the 1930's research at ISU produced alcohol-gasoline in the same ratio, 10 percent as proposed today.  Not only was the research successful, gasohol was also sold commercially in Ames at a local gas station, the Square Deal Oil Co., owned by A.J. Lewis.... 

The 1930 research was a personal project directed by Ralph Hixon of the chemistry department.  "We began the research," he told The Tribune, "because corn was selling for 10 cents a bushel and we felt that corn could be used as the base ingredient for distillation of the alcohol.  The experiment began as a form of farm relief and not as energy relief."  ..."We found," Hixon said, "That it was one of the very best fuels, gave a better performance than ethyl and allowed a steam engine effect in the operation of your automobile.  I used the product exclusively myself and was more than satisfied with the performance."

Consequently, Hixon contacted Lewis, owner of the Square Deal Oil Co. and asked him if he would be willing to use one of his pumps for the exclusive sale of alcohol-gasoline.  This meant installing a special tank which could be used for the mixing and storing and eventually pumped into a designated pump for customer use.  Maxine Chipman, 1119 Marston Ave., daughter of A.J. Lewis, reminisced about the experiment as she remembered it.  "It cost Dad something to install the tanks and it cost manpower to mix and pump the gas, but he was eager to do it, because he was firmly convinced it would be a boost for Iowa economy if it worked," she said.

One of the reasons the Ames station was asked to be the distributor for the alcohol-gasoline, was the fact of its independent ownership.  Lewis could use his own tanks for mixing, which would have been impossible for a chain-owned station to do.  "The fact my father had many gallons of alcohol (the same type used by bootleggers) was a well-kept secret.  The government, who supplied the alcohol, insisted on strict accounting.  There was a great concern about hijacking.  However, nothing happened."

Iowa State University's display at the 2008 Iowa State Fair included the research of Ralph Hixon and other ISC scientists.  It also featured a replica of the first Nebraska gas station to sell gasohol.

Farwell T. Brown's 1993 book, Ames, the early years in word and picture, includes From Alcogas to Gasahol - A first in Ames on page 166.

Another Square Deal station owned by A.J. Lewis, was located on Lincoln Way.

Iowa Farm Economist and Farm Outlook, February 16, 1940

...the picture on the cover was taken at an Ames service station and shows Samuel H. Reck, Jr., Iowa State College extension editor, refueling for a trip out into the state -- more than likely to help some county agent with a newspaper, radio or other publicity problem.  Sam is known to a large audience of Iowa farmers who listen to his early morning radio program, "Farm Facts," over Station WOI.  This program is broadcast at 6:25 a.m. each weekday morning.

My father, Harold R. Lewis, owned and operated the Square Deal Oil Company until his death in 1968.  There were five gas stations; two in Ames, two in Boone, and one in Newton.  One of them today is the Casey's on Lincoln Way.  He was in partnership with my grandfather, A.J. Lewis, until he passed away.  Many times Dad would talk about how grandpa used to sell "gasohol."  A professor Ralph Hixon at Iowa State asked if he would consider selling this mixture in hopes it would help the farmer get a better price for their corn than ten cents a bushel.  This was in the early 1930's during Prohibition, so when the corn alcohol was brought to his bulk tank east of Ames it was in secrecy and the Feds kept close accounting of its use.  The mixture was made of 10 percent corn alcohol and 90 percent ethyl (gas).  He sold it at his station on 2nd and Elm north of the DOT.  Dad would say that grandpa thought that it was the "fuel of the future."  It is what we now know as ethanol.

Nancy Lewis Ezarski

Ames Daily Tribune, March 11, 1978

One of the employees of the Square Deal Oil Co. was Russell Smith, who now [1978] lives at 229 Sherman St.  He also reminisced with the Tribune about those days in the 1930's when he pumped many gallons of alcohol-gasoline.

"We started pumping it about 1932," Smith remembered, "and probably operated the pump for two or three years.  It cost the customer 17 cents a gallon, which was in competition with ethyl gasoline.  Regular gas was, as I remember, selling for about 15 cents a gallon."  Smith said that although corn, the raw material used for processing the alcohol, was cheap, the process needed to distill the alcohol was expensive.

He remembers the alcohol being shipped to the station in barrels, and then he and Lewis would mix the alcohol and gasoline in the 10 percent ratio in the special tank.  "We put the alcohol into the tank first and then pumped the gasoline on top at the rate of 80 gallons pressure per minute.  With that rate of pressure, the mixture never separated, no matter when we tested it," he said.

The experiment was abandoned when it became clear the United States was about to be involved in a war, when gasoline and alcohol became high government priorities and even the manufacture of automobiles was suspended.

Iowa Farm Economist and Farm Outlook, February 16, 1940

We may be burning corn alcohol in our cars before long, according to the article on alcohol-gasoline blends by Shepherd, McPherson, Brown and Hixon.  And if alcohol comes into widespread use as an anti-knock agent in gasoline, chances are a large proportion of it will be distilled from corn.

It took Messrs. Shepherd, McPherson, et al, more than a year and a half to complete their study of power alcohol.  Shepherd, as readers of the Farm Economist know, is an agricultural economist at Iowa State College.  McPherson and Hixon are chemists and Brown is a mechanical engineer.  The complete report stands at more than 150 typewritten pages at present and is being added to.  It will be published at a later date.

Corn alcohol gasoline has political "oomph."  A number of groups are actively interested in promoting its use through government action of one kind or another.

The work of Shepherd, McPherson and Company, reported in this issue, is, we believe, the first scientific study of the possibilities of corn alcohol gasoline on chemical, engineering and economic grounds.


Iowa Farm Economist and Farm Outlook, February 16, 1940

Corn alcohol blended in gasoline as an anti-knock agent like tetra-ethyl-lead is nearing a reality.  Talked about for several years as a farm relief program promoted by various groups, actually tried in a few cases, corn alcohol is almost ready to step out of the laboratory onto the highway. On engineering and chemical grounds, alcohol-gasoline blends have demonstrated their practicality.

The stumbling block to immediate, large-scale use of alcohol gasoline is its cost.  If a suitable supply of raw material were available at a fairly constant cost, alcohol costs would be only slightly out of line with other anti-knock agents.  But uncertain raw material supply and prices (corn varies from 12 cents to $1.20 per bushel in Iowa in the last 10 years) have discouraged potential power alcohol makers.  In addition, they have lacked distribution facilities to compete with the major oil companies.

Without belittling these difficulties, we believe alcohol gasoline may soon be in the motor fuel picture.  And in this picture Iowa corn seems assured of a dominant position.

Automobile engines have been greatly improved during the last 15 years, and one of the big changes has been an increase in compression ratios.... But with this increase in compression ratios... has come an increased tendency to knock.  When a motor knocks it loses power and efficiency.  A large part of the tendency for high compression motors to knock can be overcome by using gasolines of high octane rating.... A gasoline of high octane rating burns smoothly in the cylinder and counteracts the tendency of high compression motors to "ping" on a heavy pull.  Thus automobile engineers have been demanding gasolines of higher octane ratings during recent years.

One way is to select crude oils yielding gasolines that knock less than others... However, the amount of petroleum yielding such high octane gasoline is limited.  So petroleum refiners have developed other means of getting anti-knock qualities.  ...another method of producing gasoline with high anti-knock rating is to add materials to the gasoline which make it burn smoother.  There are two kinds of anti-knock agents, organo-metallic compounds such as tetra-ethyl-lead and non-metallic compounds such as ethyl-alcohol, the kind made from grain....

Research in foreign laboratories has shown that alcohol is fully as effective as tetra-ethyl-lead in meeting the anti-knock requirements of modern high compression motors.  Studies at Iowa State College gave the same results.  A 10 percent alcohol, 90 percent gasoline mixture seems to be equal to or slightly superior in performance to ordinary gasoline.  Mileage per gallon appears to be about the same and motors seem to have better acceleration and run a little cooler.

Alcohol is well adapted to large-scale manufacture.  It can be made from any farm products containing high percentages of cellulose, starch or sugar.  It is made by fermentation of a sugar solution, so that cellulose and starch must be first transformed into sugar as a preliminary to the alcohol-making process.  Since alcohol can be made from sugar without the preliminary steps, generally-speaking sugar solutions (molasses) are the cheapest raw materials... Grains are the next cheapest raw material, less expensive than cellulose both because it is easier to change starch than cellulose to sugar and because cellulose is bulky and costly to ship to a central point for processing... Obviously there is no one "cost" of producing alcohol.  There are many different processes, raw materials and other conditions, including size of plant, that make "average" figure unreliable.  It is possible, however, to make estimates of the cost of producing alcohol from corn, assuming large-volume production in manufacturing plants devoted entirely to production of alcohol.

Under these assumptions, then, the cost of a gallon of power alcohol with corn prices at 50 cents a bushel would be in the neighborhood of 25 cents a gallon.  With corn prices at 75 cents, alcohol costs would rise to 33 cents a gallon.  Corn prices at 35 cents a bushel would make 19-cent power alcohol possible...  With alcohol at 25 cents a gallon, a 10 percent alcohol-gasoline blend would have to sell for one-half to one cent more per gallon than the present price of gasoline of similar octane rating....

If and when automobile motor compression ratios rise in the future, as they probably will, this combination of alcohol with lead as an anti-knock agent may become more significant.  The amount of lead is limited now to 3 cubic centimeters per gallon because of the possibility of lead poisoning from heavier concentrations.  Thus as compression ratios rise, higher octane fuels will become more necessary.... any additional rise in compression ratios would make such gasoline unsatisfactory unless its octane rating could be further increased by the addition of some other anti-knock agent.... It is logical that the United States will continue to increase compression ratios as petroleum reserves are depleted, gasoline becomes more expensive and higher octane fuels become available.

Petroleum reserves are limited.  Nobody knows exactly what they are or how long they will last.  In 1918, again in 1926 and again in 1930 estimates were made that our petroleum reserves would last only 12 to 14 years.