Sign Enthusiasts Eye Museum Dedicated to the History of Billboards
Written by Kristi Eaton
This photo shows the Rio Siesta Motel sign along Route 66 in Oklahoma in 1983.
Billboards, the ubiquitous advertising tool that sells everything from toothpaste to cars to dental service, have changed a lot over the years.
Now, a group of sign-makers, community activists, and Route 66 enthusiasts are coming together in Oklahoma to try to preserve and restore historical billboards, murals, and other signs from across the country with the eventual goal to open up a museum dedicated purely to this American tradition. The group envisions the Billboard Museum as an educational museum immersing visitors in the history and how-to of sign making at a yet-to-be determined location along Route 66 in the Oklahoma City metro area.
“It’s a unique idea,” said Monica Knudsen, secretary-treasurer of the museum’s board of directors. “The history of outdoor advertising -- it would be the only museum of its kind that we know of, especially in the United States, but there isn’t one anywhere else that we know of either.”
The group is in the process of raising funds through memberships and looking at possible pieces of land to accommodate their plan for the museum. The museum plan calls for a building to house the vintage pieces that will give a thorough history of sign-making as well as a driving loop to showcase examples of old advertising. Until then, though, historical signs and objects have been collected and are being stored in a warehouse space.
The City Drug mural along Route 66 in Sapula, Oklahoma
Among the recent pieces that the group has acquired are a sign from the Rio Siesta Motel along Route 66 in Oklahoma; a Ralph’s Drug Store sign from Oklahoma City dating back to 1947; and a Taft stadium sign from Oklahoma City. Located along historic Route 66, the stadium was completed in 1934 as a New Deal-era Works Progress Administration project.
The group also recently acquired a doctor’s buggy dating back to the early 1900s.
Jim Gleason, vice president of the Billboard Museum’s board of directors and a second-generation sign-maker, believes that once he is able to get the signs restored and lit up, people will be impressed and better appreciate the need to save and restore historical signs and billboards.
“Once people get in there and they look around and say ‘wow, yeah, we need to take care of these things,’” that should spur fundraising, he said.
Gleason is also confident there are people out there who own historically significant signs but aren’t sure what to do with them, which is why a place like a museum dedicated to the vintage pieces is necessary.
“I know there are signs out there that are sitting in peoples’ warehouses that they want to put them somewhere,” Gleason said. "I do."
The Billboard Museum acquired the Ralph's Drug sign in September. The sign dates back to 1947.
The group has also held private showings and workshops for family and friends to drum up support for their museum. Back in March, sign enthusiasts from near and far came to Oklahoma City to learn about the art of sign making from artists such as Bob Palmer, whose more than 1,000 murals are seen at locations across Oklahoma, including at the State Capitol.
To learn more about the Billboard Museum, visit BillboardMuseum.org.
Kristi Eaton is an Oklahoma-based journalist who has written a book about Oklahoma’s Main Streets. Follow her on Twitter at @KristiEaton or visit her website at KristiEaton.com.