The St. Louis Post-Dispatch profiled three local sign collectors this weekend. Bill Christman, Greg Rhomberg, and Jim May go around buying old storefront signage, particularly enamel-painted metal signs with neon lights.
“Most businesses are branded franchises, so you see the same signs over and over, repeating every few miles,” said Tod Swormstedt, who operates a sign museum in Cincinnati. “But the old signs — the hand-carved shoe or the gold-leaf lettering on a window — were iconic and what made each neighborhood unique. People miss that.”
So I guess I’m not the only one who misses that, but it sure seems like we’re a minority.
I actually make fun of the present time on my train layout. Way up front, I have a Rexall drug store. Next door: a Walgreen Drug. And another Walgreen across the street. I got the idea when Walgreen operated two stores across the street from each other for a time in Affton, a suburb of St. Louis. These days it’s almost impossible to find a drug store or pharmacy in St. Louis that isn’t a Walgreen or a CVS. But I digress.
A lot of the signs in Christman’s and Rhomberg’s collections are from before my time, but I remembered two of them from the article. Christman has the sign from the original Big Boy’s Restaurant in Wright City (not to be confused with the national chain). Big Boy’s was a 1920s-style roadside stop famous for fried chicken and cornbread sticks. The original restaurant opened in 1924 but closed in 2005 due to an issue with not paying state sales tax. The old building quickly fell into disrepair, and while it still stands along I-70 in Wright City, it’s in the process of being demolished. A couple of former employees reopened the restaurant in October
in a strip mall across I-70 from the old site.
The other sign I remembered was from an O.T. Hodge Chile Parlor. O.T. Hodge was a long-running local St. Louis chain that served chili and traditional American diner fare starting in 1904. The locations I frequented–Union Station, Lafayette Square, and Crestwood–all closed in the late 1990s or early 2000s. While the company operates a web site
, I don’t know if they have any restaurants left in operation anymore. St. Louis still has other good diners–the Courtesy Diner with locations on Hampton and Kingshighway comes to mind–but I do miss Hodge’s.
Speaking of Crestwood, it used to be a great place to spy old signs. The old Route 66 is the main drag through Crestwood, and if you squint right some stretches of it still look the part, though it seems like more and more of its old character vanishes every year, replaced by disposable strip malls that boom for a while, then go vacant as a newer one gets built down the street. Then the cycle churns again, and the older strip malls are redeveloped into newer ones, each somehow managing to have less character than whatever it replaced.
Christman and Romberg hope to someday open a sign museum in St. Louis. I hope they do. Until then, I guess I’ll have to make my way to Cincy to visit Swormstedt’s American Sign Museum
Postscript: Be very, very careful if you follow that link. It leads to all sorts of forgotten places, places my sons will likely only read about in history books, if at all.