by John Weiss
From the Winter 1998 issue of The 66 News
Ties to the past are often visual, mainly signs, billboards, and structures. These past attempts at roadside commercialism are looked upon as direct links to the past.
Signs and billboards that have survived over the years have been viewed by virtually millions of people. In their day, many of them created excitement of what lay ahead. Very few of these historic highway icons still remain.
Nowadays, we are bombarded by television, the Internet and other high tech, advertising gimmicks. In the past, it was the ingenuity of Mom & Pop businesses or clever companies. A good example would be the Burma Shave slogan signs. Another good example are, the painted barns of the Meramec Caverns. Old advertising is like a window to another time, or a reflection of the many eyes who have observed them before you.
Three painted barns still exist on Route 66 in Illinois. Two are Meramec Caverns and the other one is Mail Pouch Tobacco. Because of the highway Beautification act of 1967, no new bam signs have been created. The old ones are considered non-conforming advertising, were grandfathered in, and can be repainted when the bam is rebuilt.
The most photographed barn on Route 66 in Illinois is the Meramec Caverns bam in Cayuga, just north of Pontiac. It clearly advertises the Meramec Caverns location on Route 66 in Missouri. The bam sits in a very picturesque setting on the Lady Boss Ranch. Most travelers of Route 66 in Illinois have seen this structure. But time was taking its toll on this painted lady. She stood proudly but begged for help. I wrote two letters to Meramec Caverns requesting their advice and help. They had originally planned to repaint it in 1995. A reply was never received. As chairman of the Preservation Committee, I felt that we, as a group, needed to do something to help. A bam such as this is somewhat of a country art form. No two are exactly the same.
First, we went and talked to the owner, Joy Beutel. She was very excited about restoring the bam. We then took a close up look at the project. The 100 plus year old bam had 30” wide asphalt shingles for siding over the red painted bam board. It was first painted by Meramec in the late 40’s or early 50’s. Then, in 1961, they came back and completely painted over the original sign and the entire side of this huge barn.
They then repainted their advertisement. A close look at the before photo clearly shows the old lettering bleeding through. It read at the top, “See” then in a single line it read, “Meramec Caverns.” We concluded that the shingles were well over 50 years old and that it had been 37 years since the first lettering was painted over. The problem was with these old dried out shingles. They were slowly falling off the building. It was not repairable in its current condition.
I put the word out for some professional volunteers. A carpenter, Paul Wendt, and a sign painter, Randy Wierzag came forward. With their guidance we figured we would need to totally restore this nostalgic relic. It would take money and man power. The bam owner chipped in and we had some funds due to the generosity of people who donated to our preservation projects account. Now we needed workers. That was easy. Many men and women volunteered for this “feel good” project.
The bam itself was in good shape but all the old siding shingles needed to be replaced. We felt it was very important to have the sign be identical to how it was when painted in 1961. As we removed each shingle, we had to trace onto the bam its exact letter location. Then, as each new shingle was added, we had to trace onto it the precise alignment of the original letters. This was time consuming, but very important.
As a fundraiser for future projects, the old shingles with lettering were saved as much as possible. We hope people will want to own a piece of this historic sign.
The side of the bam is 56 feet wide and 30 feet high. As we worked our way to the top, the ingenuity of Paul, the carpenter, was very beneficial. We had scaffolding up that resembled a maze. It was very dangerous work but we were determined to get it done.
It took three full days to complete the project. We also had temperatures in the 90’s. Add to that, four horses and a mule who constantly came by to check on our progress.
When we finished on August 30,1998, we thought back to 1961. We envisioned Mr. Jim Gauer, the Meramec’s sign painter since 1956, standing back and checking out how it looked as we were now doing. The sun was setting;’ we opened champagne and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done. We hope all future travelers on Route 66 enjoy our accomplishment. We also suggest that for a moment you think back to all who have passed this way before you. At that moment you will have stepped back in time. Your eyes are seeing exactly what they had seen.
The workers who so unselfishly volunteered their time and talent are as follows: Roger Berta, Larry & Gretchen Boyd, Jeff Lafollette, Frank & Roxane Lozich, Bill Przybylski, Marty Schleder, Dorothy Seratt, Randy Smith, Gretchen Staats, John & Lenore Weiss, Dennis & Paul Wendt, and Doug & Randy Wierzgac.
I could not have done this project without them. These are people I am very proud to know. Enjoy the ride on Route 66!
From the cover of the Winter 1998 issue of The 66 News