Feb 9, 2024 | Stories

An early Spokane Valley company enters the race to fuel the automobile!

With the rapid growth of the automobile industry in the early 1900s, came the challenge of how to supply the fuel to power them. While the petroleum companies worked to keep the country supplied with gasoline, others were exploring another fuel alternative. Alcohol based fuel made from fermented plant waste had already been proven as a very effective replacement for gasoline. It burned cleaner, developed more horse-power, and could be produced competitively to gasoline. However, the nation’s largest petroleum supplier Standard Oil, through questionable means, was able to keep the alcohol-based companies from disrupting the gasoline monopoly. Discovery of large oil fields in Texas also helped them maintain control for several years.

Vegalene promotional poster

The Power Oil and Gas Company is formed.

In the early 1920s rumors of gasoline supply issues began to surface. In 1923 Elmer H. Records, a chemical engineer living in Wallace, Idaho filed a patent with the United States Government regarding an alcohol fermenting still he had recently developed. He claimed that his new process would produce a fuel that could replace gasoline, without changing or adjusting the carburation system on an existing engine. Previous alcohol fuels were said to require expensive modifications, before they could be used. On August 16, 1923, Mr. Records, with other partners filed articles of incorporation for the new Power Oil and Gas Company in Kellogg, Idaho.

Potatoes are to be the main ingredient.

Demonstrations of the new fuel made from potatoes were held in Wallace in the window of a local shoe store, using a small gas-powered engine. Newspaper articles soon dubbed the novel fuel “Potato Gas” or “Spud Gas.” As interest in the new company grew, investment followed. Initial plans to build a processing plant in the Wallace area were changed due to the availability of the company’s raw material needs.
Although potatoes were preferred, any plant waste could be added to the mix. Damaged or rotten fruits such as apples or pears were a good replacement, even sawdust could be added in small amounts. In early 1924, Mr. Records headed to Spokane to promote the new company, and search for an appropriate production site. Several demonstrations involving local businessmen and car dealers brought very favorable results.

Land in Spokane Valley is purchased.

A 21-acre production site on the north side of the Spokane River, across from Greenacres was chosen. This included access to the Spokane International Railway line. Construction of the new $35,000 fuel plant began in May of 1924, and within a few weeks the facility was making small batches of its products. The plan was to be in full operation by the end of the year, using raw materials purchased from farmers at the end of the harvest season. A major setback occurred when a large explosion and resulting fire in December destroyed
several of the plant’s buildings, causing several thousand dollars in damage. Luckily, no employees were hurt; but work to replace the buildings would delay operations for several months.

The new product hits the market.

The Power Oil and Gas Company released its products under the name Vegalene. Fuel additives and engine cleaners were among the first products available to customers. The company’s larger goals however were based on its alcohol fuels. In May 14,1925 local aviation hero Nick Mamer flew a plane, fueled only by Vegalene gas to Wallace, Idaho, to promote the soon to be released gasoline substitute. On June 1, 1925 the first fuel dispensing pump under the Vegalene label became available to the public at MacDonalds Service Station at Sprague and Sherman. However, the processing plant still lacked the capacity to produce and store enough of the fuel to seriously enter the market.

Large investments are put into the factory.

Major expansions at the facility would take nearly a year to complete. This was followed by a grand opening celebration on June 5,1926. Around 700 people showed up for a tour of the plant, free barbeque lunch, and aerial exhibitions by Nick Mamer. His plane of course was again fueled exclusively by Vegalene gas. By April 1927, with the increased capacity of the plant, 22 service stations were offering Vegalene gas, along with its other products.

Too many obstacles to overcome.

Unfortunately, during this time there was also an abundance of petroleum, and gasoline price wars kept prices low. Vegalene became a more costly alternative. Another major issue was that many service stations were either leased by, or owned by the big petroleum companies, who would not carry the Vegalene brand. Hindered by these problems, and the stock market crash of 1929, the Power Oil and Gas company was forced to abandon its Vegalene products.

The end of the dream is near.

By 1930 the Power Oil and Gas Company turned its attention to other fuel alternatives. Prior to the failure of the Vegalene brand, the plant was already looking for a “Plan B” to keep the facility running. The processing of Lignite, or “Brown Coal” was thought to help the company get through the depression of the 1930s, but that too failed. In 1936 the Power Oil and Gas Company lost its corporate license and the plant closed.