Miles of memories
Memorabilia business takes collectors back in time to roadside attractions
BY KERRY FIRTH
The old adage “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” rings true with the father/son duo at the Alex Viesta Collection. Often, it’s the elder of the two who offers such insight, but in this case, it was the teenage son, Alex Viesta, who chose a path less traveled and built a successful business buying and selling antique cars, signage, gas relics and nostalgic memorabilia along the way.
Alex Viesta was only 12 when he started collecting NASCAR miniature cars and progressed to Matchbox cars within six months. From there he went to collecting and trading Johnny Lightning die-cast cars and on to children’s pedal cars. It wasn’t long before the unique signage that attracted drivers into a particular gas station or body shop caught his attention and he started scouring flea markets, country roads and trader’s exhibitions for signs from another era.
But the younger Viesta couldn’t stop at collecting just flat signage when there was a whole world of life-size mascots and statues designed to reel in customers. While mostly from the petroleum industry, the collection of vintage signage and memorabilia fills two huge warehouses with many of the collectibles from the restaurant and entertainment industries as well.
With no formal training, the young entrepreneur turned his hobby into a business by the time he was 14. Now at the ripe old age of 29, he is a major player in the vintage collectible game. His father, John Viesta, always supported his son and 12 years ago he jumped on the bandwagon to join the adventure. Now the two travel the country collecting, buying and selling unique pieces of memorabilia. As Alex Viesta says on his Facebook page, “they travel old country roads in search of rusty gold.”
INTERESTING BACK STORIES
It’s the stories behind the memorabilia that seemingly possessed young Alex to make a career out of buying and selling collectibles. Take DINO, the Sinclair dinosaur for example, which is one of the most popular icons in American petroliana. Back in the 1930s, Sinclair’s advertising writers had the idea to use dinosaurs to promote lubricants refined from crude oil believed to have formed when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The original campaign featured dozens of different dinosaurs, but it was the gentle giant, the 70-foot-long apatosaurus, that captured the hearts of Americans.
DINO became so popular that Sinclair registered him as a trademark in 1932 and his image graced all the company’s oil products. A life-size DINO appeared in the Century of Progress exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1932-1933, along with several other dinosaurs built by P.G. Alen, who was known for creating lifelike papier-mache animals for motion pictures.
DINO arrived in New York with eight of his new friends constructed from fiberglass and featuring animatronics for the Sinclair’s Dinoland exhibit in the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Around that time fiberglass DINOs began appearing at Sinclair stations across the country and are still a favorite photo op if you are lucky enough to find one. There are about 1,400 Sinclair stations remaining in the U.S. with the majority in the Midwest.
“We travel everywhere in search of unique items,” John Viesta said. “The farthest we’ve been is to Las Vegas and everywhere in between and almost to Canada and everything in between. There are a lot of dealers like us in this country, so we have a lot of connections. In this industry everyone helps each other. We all give each other leads. I’m basically retired so I’m in this for the fun and I’m so lucky I get to do it with my son.
“We sell a lot of our stuff to restaurants, amusement parks and dealers,” he continued. “We also have core customers with big antique car collections and they’ll come back time and time again to buy signs, statues and gas pumps to display along with the cars. We call them the baby boomers. They are in their 50s. Their parents die and leave them a bunch of money. They go and buy a car that reminds them of their youth and from there they start buying stuff to put around the car. It’s all about the memories.”
COLLECTION COVERS ACRES
The Alex Viesta Collection is housed on a secluded 10-acre parcel in western Vero Beach where Alex and John have family residences. Their driveway is lined with vintage gas pumps, signage, classic cars, drive through restaurant signage from days gone by and even a DINO or two.
If you’re lucky enough to visit the property during their yearly Gas Bash open house held in February, you can walk through a Ronald McDonald village, pretend to gas up at an old Mobil station, or sit and chat with a Blues Brother. Antique fire trucks are manned by life-sized Simpsons and Chipmunks characters and a vintage circus wagon is awaiting its crew. Life-size lion, tiger and giraffe statues are strategically placed among the pines and palmettos to look as real as possible. You might even see Col. Sanders standing next to Uncle Sam admiring Betty Boop. A visit to the warehouse is a mind-boggling experience that will awaken your senses and rekindle your memories.
The latest addition to the compound is an antique railroad caboose that the older Viesta acquired last year.
“I’ve always wanted to have a caboose and my friend stumbled upon one from the 1940s that was sitting on private property in Fellsmere,” he said. “The original owner had ties to the railroad industry and had it for many years. It is my understanding it’s from the Vero area originally. I purchased it when he sold his house and hired a crane company to dismantle and move it to the back of our property. Now I’m converting it into a small apartment. It’s not for sale, but it was just a fun addition to our collection.”
LOOKING FOR SOMETHING?
Visit the Alex Viesta Collection on Facebook for a sampling of its inventory. The property isn’t open to the public on a regular basis but you can call Alex at 473.3790 or John at 473.7614 for a private showing or to ask about a special treasure they might have or might be able to find.
March 3, 2023