May 25, 2023

Along Route 66, the Hi-Way Cafe Sign Shines Again

For those that enjoy traveling on the open road, there is nothing like a brightly lit neon sign to encourage a rest stop for a cup of coffee. In 2022, thanks in part to grants from the National Park Service's Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program (a 50/50 cost share grant) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Backing Historic Small Restaurants Grant Program (presented by American Express), the Hi-Way Cafe in Vinita, Oklahoma, restored their iconic sign so that it burned brightly for the community and the road-weary once again.

In 1963, Tom Schwartz opened the Hi-Way Cafe along Oklahoma’s Route 66, where the cafe became a much beloved stop along this well-traveled route. For the past twelve years the cafe has been owned and operated by Elizabeth Hilburn (a member of the Delaware and Cherokee Nations) and her family, who have steadfastly served the community through the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds from the grant enabled the Hilburns to create an outdoor seating area, provide upgrades to the main entryway, and return the neon sign to its former glory.

photo by: Rhys Martin

Community members gather to celebrate the relighting of the Hi-Way Cafe neon sign in March 2023.

Over the course of about three and a half months, Encinos Signs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, painstakingly restored the Hi-Way Cafe sign, and on March 25, 2023, a crowd of 200 people gathered for a relighting event. In reflecting on the occasion, Elizabeth Hilburn said, “It’s so hard to sum up my feelings with this sign and the restoration process. It means so much to us, to the cafe, [to] northeastern Oklahoma, and to all the travelers that we share the road with. To be able to save such an iconic sign is something that I will be proud of for years to come. It’s more than a sign, it’s a symbol of hope. A hope of coexistence between the times of the past and the never-ending evolution into the future.”

Follow along in this photo essay as this beacon on Route 66 slowly comes back to life.

Restoring the Hi-Way Cafe Sign

photo by: Encinos Signs

Sanding down the sign to reach the original metal face.

photo by: Encinos Signs

Older coats of paint removed from the Hi-Way Cafe sign after it was detached from the frame.

When the Hi-Way Cafe sign first arrived at Encinos Signs, the staff detached the sign faces from the frame to begin the restoration process. Val sanded the sign face to remove impurities that had developed over the decades. As he removed older coats of paint, it was easier to notice where the damage was and ensured that fresh coats of paint were placed on the original metal face.

photo by: Encinos Signs

Matching colors for further restoration.

Once the sign was detached from the frame, other restoration work began, including painting the sign. To correctly identify the correct hues, Deborah used a swatch to color match the old sign face so that the new paint was the same as the original.

photo by: Encinos Signs

Sign frame with one side of the face reattached during restoration.

photo by: Encinos Signs

Detail of new metal on the sign.

Once the sign faces were removed, restorers could see the inside of the sign cavity. The numbers helped Encinos Signs know where to place the wires for the installation of the neon units and other power supplies. The labeling system also served as indicators to reassemble the sign correctly. They added in new metal parts where the old metal rusted away completely. These reinforced parts strengthened the metal so that the sign will last a few more decades.

photo by: Encinos Signs

Preparing the neon glass on the Hi-Way Cafe sign.

photo by: Encinos Signs

Lettering was hand-painted back on the freshly restored sign.

The owner of Encinos Signs, Jesus Sr. hand painted the letters back to match the original lettering on the sign face. The traditional methodology used by the restoration company is to make a pattern and then use clear tape to outline where the painting occurs.

One of the final steps in the restoration process was adding the neon back onto the sign. Carl installed the new neon units using the guides and markings from when the sign was first disassembled, ensuring precise placement. The result? For the first time in a long time, the sign has working neon, just as it had thirty years earlier.

Relighting the Hi-Way Cafe

photo by: Rhys Martin

The restored Hi-Way Cafe sign before the relighting ceremony.

In March 2023 a crowd gathered for the relighting of the Hi-Way Cafe sign. With a number of notable community members present, this moment marked a return to form for the cafe and a promising future. Featured presenters included State Representative Rusty Cornwall, State Senator Michael Bergstrom, and Tonya Anna, assistant chief of the Delaware Tribe. Tom Schwartz, the original owner who built the cafe and sign in 1963, flipped the switch to relight the newly restored neon sign.

photo by: Rhys Martin

Beth and Alan Hilburn, the current owners, with Tom Schwartz (in red), the original owner of the Hi-Way Café and designer of the neon sign in 1963, gather to mark the occasion of the sign's relighting.

photo by: Rhys Martin

"Team Neon" prepared the National Park Service grant application and shepherded it through the process: Beth Hilburn (owner), Rhys Martin (President of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association), Bob Gehl, and Jim Thole (members of the Route 66 Association of Missouri and their Neon Heritage Preservation Committee).

"The National Trust was thrilled to assist the Hi-Way Cafe with this important and timely project through the Backing Historic Small Restaurants Program,” said Amy Webb, senior field director and project manager for the National Trust’s Preserve Route 66 Initiative. “The timing is perfect, as Route 66 will be celebrating its Centennial anniversary in 2026. The Hi-Way Cafe is now ready to welcome Route 66 travelers well into the Mother Road’s second century.”

photo by: Rhys Martin

A look at the fully lit Hi-Way Cafe sign at dusk.

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