Leonard Refineries of Alma


It has frequently been said that for millions of Americans the automobile created a new level of mobility. Often left unsaid, but equally true, is that for many oil companies the trips American made in their cars created a vast new market in which in which to make millions of dollars by selling gasoline and other automotive-related products. Oil companies discovered one way to get people into their cars, and buying gasoline, was to promote tourism. Few companies did this better or with more commitment than Alma’s Leonard Refineries.

Early Company History

Today it is hard to imagine a time when gasoline was not a necessity, but until the beginning of the twentieth century gasoline was seen as a largely waste product of refining. Nineteenth century oil refineries focused on making kerosene, which was the preferred fuel by consumers for illumination. After refining one, forty-two gallon barrel of crude oil manufacturers had to sell about 1.26 gallons of kerosene and about 16.8 gallons of gasoline. Gasoline was marketed as “stove naphtha” and sold for cooking and occasionally illumination, but because it was more likely to cause and explosion than kerosene it was not much used.
The automobile fundamentally restructured the refining business, taking the unpopular and largely unsellable stove naphtha and making it a commonly sold petroleum product. By 1933 more than 170,000 gasoline stations were selling fuel to power automobiles. The market was vast and profitable. The discovery of oil in Michigan soon led businessmen in this state to enter it. In 1928 mid-Michigan’s Mt. Pleasant oil field was opened and began to produce substantial quantities of crude oil. Two subsequent oil discoveries in the area, in Midland County’s Porter Township in 1933 and the Crystal Field in Montcalm County in 1935, made it clear that large amounts of crude oil lay underneath mid-Michigan’s ground. Several refineries were constructed to process the crude oil.
J. Walter Leonard was a young man whose father was a Pennsylvania oil man who was active in oil exploration and development across the nation. The sudden death of one of his father’s partners in a Michigan project jeopardized the family interests, and J. Walter was asked to come to the state to ensure the success of the endangered investment. When he arrived, Leonard sensed an opportunity. He bought the drilling rigs his father had sent to Michigan and drilled the wells himself. In 1935 one well, drilled by J. Walter Leonard, The Durban #1 in Montcalm County, opened the very successful Crystal Field. At a time when production in the state amounted to about 37,000 barrels of oil a day, Leonard’s Durban #1 discovery well daily produced an astounding daily figure of 3,594 barrels of oil. J. Walter Leonard suddenly had more oil than he could market.  He needed a refinery to process it.
In 1936, J. Walter Leonard formed a publicly held company which purchased a refinery that was being constructed in Alma, Michigan. The refinery Leonard purchased was small and had very limited technical capability. It could process only 2,500 barrels of crude oil a day, and produce gasoline rated from 40 to 50 octane, which as dispairingly called “Michigan gas.”  Competitors could refine gas rated at 75 to 80 octane. In 1937 the Leonard refinery began a series of improvements designed to both increase capacity and create higher quality products.
Leonard Refineries became known for technical innovation.  In 1938 the firm developed a “midget” polymerization unit. Polymerization was first used by large refineries. As Philips explained it to the public when it introduced “Poly-Gas,”  
”You tip-toe the button, and there is no missing … sputtering … or backfiring. What a kick! When your motor rolls over with no gnashing of teeth, purr-r-r-s into instant action, warms up fast. Besides, you save miles usually wasted by excessive use of the choke with ordinary low-test fuels.”   
Advertising hyperbole aside, polymerization allowed refineries to capture “waste gases” to make a high octane gasoline. The first polymerization units cost $125,000, far more money than small, independent refineries like Leonard could afford. Leonard’s “midget” unit cost $9,000, and gave smaller, independent refineries the ability to successfully compete with national oil companies. Similarly, in 1947, Leonard introduced a “midget” catalytic cracking unit. Similar units at large refineries had cost millions of dollars, while the Leonard midget was created on a $500,000 budget. Similar in impact to the midget polymerization unit, it allowed independent refineries like Leonard to successfully sell 100 octane plus aviation fuel in competition with national firms.
In 1955 Leonard expanded dramatically when it obtained control of two other nearby refineries – Alma’s Mid-West Refinery and Mt. Pleasant’s Roosevelt Refinery. Because each of the three refineries specialized in different products, the merger was quite successful. However, finding sufficient crude to meet the company’s expanded refining capacity proved challenging. In 1956 Leonard, which had originally relied on crude oil found in Michigan an increasingly on supplies brought in by pipeline from the south, began to purchase Canadian crude oil.  Canadian crude had become available because of a newly completed Canadian oil pipeline that had been built to link Canada’s western oil reserves to the country’s eastern markets. To lower construction costs, the pipeline traveled through Michigan rather than around it and ended Sarnia, Ontario, where existing pipe could carry the crude further east into Canada.

Early Advertising

In 1938, Leonard began selling products to consumers under its own name. Leonard became a major regional gasoline company marketing its products primarily in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula but outside of metropolitan Detroit. By 1961 more than 700 service stations were either directly owned by the company or were independently operated and selling gasoline under the Leonard brand name.

Most of its early advertising campaigns focused around the quality of its product and the services offered at the many gas stations which sold Leonard gasoline. In the 1950s Leonard focused many of its promotions on selling very high octane fuel to motorists. In 1953 Leonard was the first company in the country to offer 96 octane gas to the public. In 1957 the company upped the octane race by offering 105 octane fuel; a rating sufficient for most small aircraft and any automobile sporting aviation-like tail fins.

The firm, however, realized in the mid-1950s that while high octane gasoline and the advertising around it had won the company some success, it was not very distinctive. Sinclair, for example, was selling its own high octane gasoline, “Power-X,” which it claimed was “power-primed with rocket-fuel.” Consumers found it difficult to distinguish Leonard’s advertisements from those made by the company’s competitors, which also claimed to sell quality gasoline and offer superior service.

Going Places in Michigan

In 1956 Leonard adopted a new strategy that played to its strength as a regional, Michigan-based company by encouraging people to travel in Michigan. Labeled “going places in Michigan,” the keystone of the campaign was a very successful television show,  Michigan Outdoors, which was televised across the state.  Michigan Outdoors, its host, Mort Neff, and of course the show’s new principal sponsor, Leonard Gas, attracted at its peak over 2.5 million viewers weekly and became synonymous with outdoor activities for a generation of Michiganians.

Leonard’s decision to sponsor a tourism campaign put it at the forefront of advertising. In 1955 several national firms had begun to experiment with promoting travel. For example, Sinclair Oil had produced ten “public service” announcements promoting America’s national parks, but did not directly link the ads to gasoline marketing. Esso Standard Oil Company (today’s Exxon-Mobil) promoted tourism in areas where it then sold gasoline, largely along the east coast in the south. Prior to this gasoline companies had occasionally published “guides” to hunting and fishing in a particular area. But the idea of linking travel and gasoline sales was still novel in 1956 when Leonard began to advertise on Michigan Outdoors

Michigan Outdoors had originated in 1951. The show’s host, Mort Neff, was educated as a journalist, and saw himself as a reporter covering a wide range of outdoor activities. Neff knew how to put together an entertaining program that would appeal to a wide segment of the population. A radio program he began in 1940 under the sponsorship of the state Department of Conservation and which aired on 32 radio stations, led, somewhat accidentally, to his becoming in 1951 the “temporary” host of a 15 minute television show broadcast in Detroit and devoted to outdoor activities. The show soon expanded both in time, to 30 minutes, and in scope. Neff, who soon owned the program outright, bought air time from television stations across the state and simulcast the program in various markets.  For many people, tuning in to Mort Neff and Michigan Outdoors on Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. was an activity second only to attending church on Sunday; and at least a few Michiganians ranked watching Neff as preferable to listening to the sermon prepared by their pastor.

Leonard Refineries both sponsored the program and built a large number of printed promotions around it. Almost all of the promotions were distributed free of charge, at “your local Leonard station.” The most prominent item was a monthly publication, Going Places in Michigan, which was first distributed at Leonard gas stations in May 1956. Each issue promoted a wide range of tourist activities. Typically the publication included four “dominant’ stories about major events, a calendar of events briefly listing other activities, a map of choice fishing spots selected by Mort Neff, and other “tips.”

Behind the scenes Leonard’s advertising agency divided the state into 15 “zones” and made an effort to regularly promote attractions in each zone. Stories and information found in Going Places in Michigan reported on a wide variety of activities. As one might expect, hunting and fishing often were given extensive reviews, but Neff and Leonard saw their audience as more than sportsmen.  Scenic drives and lookout points, points of interest for photography fans, historical sites, the location of showboats and summer theater, winter activities, and a wide range of special events or attractions, from rodeos, ox roasts, golf tournaments, county fairs, religious shrines, lighthouses and anything else the public might find interesting, were all featured both on the television and on the pages of Going Places in Michigan.

Linked to the travel campaign, Leonard supported activities to clean roadsides.  In 1956 Leonard installed litter barrels at all its service stations were motorists could empty their trash, and that year distributed over 100,000 litterbags to drivers, in which to hold the trash until their next stop at a Leonard station. Free maps, noting the locations of both interesting sites identified by Mort Neff and Leonard gas stations, were also liberally distributed.

Soon enough, Leonard not only identified places to go in Michigan, but organizing outdoorsmen and becoming a sponsor of events. In the fall of 1958 Leonard organized the “Leonard Outdoors Club of Michigan,” encouraging the state’s residents to focus even more closely on Leonard endorsed recreational activity. Also in 1958 the company sponsored Michigan Outdoors first annual ski festival, at Caberfae Lodge, sixteen miles west of Cadillac.  The company was involved as a sponsor in various festivals and activities, such as an annual “carp carnival” in Monroe County, an event in which over 2,000 archers using bows and arrows tested their skill against carp. “Tip-Up -Town,” an annual ice fishing festival at Houghton Lake was also a favorite of both Mort Neff and Leonard gas. However the company’s largest single event-related commitment became support for recreational boating.



In the 1950s, Michigan, with its many lakes and rivers, was a major center for recreational boating. In 1959 Michigan residents owned over 436,000 powerboats, second in the nation only to New York State. Throughout most of the 1960s the number of registered boats in Michigan would rank either first or second in the nation. With so many boats in the water, Leonard saw a market for marine products. In 1958 the company introduced a fuel specially designed for outboard motors. In 1961 it added a fuel, named “Power-Mix,” for two-cycle engines. Looking for a way to market its products, Leonard became a major sponsor of the Greater Michigan Boat Show, which it eventually took over as a wholly owned subsidiary. The first show was organized in the Detroit area in 1957. Leonard became a show sponsor in 1958. The show was extraordinarily successful. By 1959 the Greater Michigan boat show was the third largest in the nation. In 1961 over 100,000 people paid one dollar each to enter the show and manufacturer sales representatives on the floor ruefully complained that parking problems had kept many others potential customers from getting in the doors.

Other Advertising

Although Michigan Outdoors and travel were the signature advertising programs of the firm, Leonard continued to also sponsor a wide array of other advertisements to bring in customers. It continued to advertise the quality of its products and service, and often coupled this with programs like Leonard’s “winter driving guarantee,” which promised that if you faithfully followed the Leonard service plan, and of course exclusively used Leonard gas, should your car fail to start in the winter Leonard would pay to get it running again.

Leonard also sponsored a wide variety of give-aways and promotions.  For example in 1956 it offered a bicycle at every service station for the child who gathered the most coupons; with one coupon being awarded for every gallon of gas purchased at that station. In 1961Leonard offered customers the opportunity to buy “Golden Rhapsody” chinaware, which was advertised in Vogue magazine for $5.25 a place setting but was available at Leonard stations for only 99 cents, with a minimum purchase of 8 gallons of gas.

The firm regularly gave away or sold at steep discount china, mugs, glass tumblers, thermos bottles and many other products, all of course available to the consumer only after the purchase of a minimum quantity of Leonard gas.

The End of an Era

In 1959 Leonard and Sohio announced plans to merge. Although the threat of a federal anti-trust suit eventually led the companies to abandon the plan, the proposed merger seems to have signaled a change in direction at Leonard.  Leonard’s senior management had apparently concluded that the firm could not survive forever as an independent, Michigan-based company. Rather Leonard needed a strong partner for its continued success.

In 1966 the French firm, Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (CFP), purchased a one-third stake in Leonard. CFP was interested in entering the American market, as had some of its European rivals such as British Petroleum (BP) and Royal Dutch Shell (Shell). In turn, Leonard was looking for new capital to spur additional growth, just as it had sought in the proposed 1959 merger. The initial result of the transaction was a new emphasis within Leonard on sales in the Detroit area.

In the mid-1960s’, approximately 50% of the gasoline sold in Michigan was purchased in metro Detroit. In 1967 in “outstate’ Michigan, Leonard sold gas at about 550 stations and had a 10% share of the market. But the company had only fifty stations, and about a 5% market share, of the metro-Detroit market. To improve its sales in the Detroit area, the company committed itself to developing 100 new stations in the Detroit metropolitan area over a ten year period.

The company also modified its marketing strategy, looking for ways to attract more attention in Detroit. It began to sponsor racing, in particular Michigan’s “Press On Regardless” (POR) road rally. It experimented with “hostesses” in bright red suits who greeted customers at the pumps with various public relations activities. In early 1968 Leonard’s “Travel Card” took on the characteristics of a credit card, with a particular emphasis on allowing holders to charge vacation expenses at hotels, restaurants, and similar venues. In 1968 the company persuaded Mort Neff to change the time of Michigan Outdoors broadcast from its venerable Thursday slot, which gave viewers a “heads up” on the coming weekend’s activities, to Saturday evening, which sacrificed viewers who hoped to plan their weekend activities but which the company hoped would capture a larger share of the Detroit area viewing audience.

The Company's Final Years

In 1970 Leonard and CFP’s other North American assets merged, under the new name of Total. Although it was not completely clear at the time, since Total originally located its senior management in Alma, the sale marked the end of a distinctive Michigan firm.

In 1971 Total rebranded it retail outlets; the name “Total” replaced “Leonard” on the company’s service stations. Symbolic of the change was a change in leadership. In 1971 Reid Brazell retired as chairman of the Total Board of Directors.  Brazell had become president of Leonard in 1942. He held that post until 1969, when he succeeded J. Walter Leonard, the firm’s founder, as chairman of the Leonard Board of Directors. In 1970 Brazell was asked to stay on as the first chairman of the Total Board, which some hopefully took to indicate much about the new company’s continuing interest in Michigan.  However, when he retired in 1971, Brazell was replaced as chairman not by a Michigan resident but rather by Etienne L. Dalemont, of Paris.  In 1972 Total’s headquarters were transferred from Alma to Denver, Colorado.

Total was soon advertised as “the international gasoline” and promotions featured world maps and a series of miniature flags from foreign nations. It dropped sponsorship of Michigan Outdoors. Particularly in the Detroit area, Total also began to recast its image from a ‘full-service” station at which attendants would pump the gas and perform other services on the car to a low-cost, “self-serve,” gas station, at which the consumer would personally fuel the car. “Self-service” was hardly a new idea – the first such stations had appeared in California in 1947 under the name “Gas-A-Terias” -- but they were still unusual in Michigan. The company also quickly realized that what had once been repair bays for oil changes and auto repairs could be converted into small but profitable convenience stores.

For all of its efforts, however, Total’s share of the Michigan market never substantially increased over that which Leonard had enjoyed in the late 1960s.  In 1997 San Antonio-based Ultramar Diamond Shamrock (UDS) purchased Total from its French parent company. UDS was an independent oil refinery company which was rapidly expanding in an attempt to create a new, national firm. Perhaps because its expansion was so rapid, many of its purchases did not prove well advised. The Total purchase quickly became one of those troubled acquisitions.  

In 1999 UDS sold the 179 company-owned Total gas stations to Marathon Ashland Petroleum (MAP), which marketed its gas under the name “Speedway.” Contracts to supply fuel to an additional 214 independently owned gasoline stations which sold Total gas were also transferred to MAP. UDS also hoped to find a buyer for the Alma Refinery but it was unable to find a purchaser for what the industry considered to be a small and relatively inefficient refinery. Unable to sell the facility, in 1999 UDS stopped production in Alma. In 2003 UDS demolished the refinery.



This exhibit would not have been possible without the generosity of many individuals. 
We wish to thank in particular the Chris McKee family, whose generous gift of Leonard material made this exhibit possible.  Thanks also to Mr. Jim Hand for donating to the Library many of the Leonard artifacts displayed in this exhibit.
Several individuals and organizations also lent material for display. We express our thanks to:
  • The Breckenridge-Wheeler Area Historical Society
  • John Leonard
  • Maureen Mayne
  • Chris McKee
  • Jay Neff