A visit to the American Sign Museum

Garrett and I took a spring break trip together last month, a two-day jaunt over to Cincinnati to see the sights and do the doings.

This was the last of our spring break trips. I’ve documented many of them here: Mammoth Cave; Route 66; a cabin in the Tennessee woods; Washington, DC, and the National Road as far as Ohio (where we wrecked our car). It’s been all about building good memories with my sons, the car crash notwithstanding. I’m sad to see this era in our lives end.

This final spring break trip was so short and lightly planned that it felt a little anticlimactic. Garrett had just had his wisdom teeth removed and needed several recovery days before he felt like traveling. And then the weather was bad for a 300-mile radius, limiting our options. So it wasn’t until Tuesday of that week that we decided to just go over to Cincy and see whatever there was to see, preferably indoors.

American Sign Museum entrance

I knew for sure that we’d visit the American Sign Museum. I’ve wanted to go for years. My old-road excursions have put me in contact with lots of Americana, frequently in neglected condition. At the American Sign Museum, everything is restored and fully functioning. And I hoped to connect with some childhood memories.

Holiday Inn

I admit it: I went primarily to see the neon. I’m just old enough to remember neon’s waning days along America’s roadside. As a kid, I loved to drive US 31 through Roseland, a little burg just north of my hometown of South Bend. It’s a strip of motels, mostly, serving the nearby Indiana Toll Road. Many of them boasted neon signs, one of which was an iconic Holiday Inn sign similar to the one above. There was even a Roto-Sphere, a neon-pointed rotating star, on that strip. It’s still there, actually. I have no idea why I didn’t photograph it when I made my trip along Indiana’s US 31 many years ago! But you can see it on this page of Roto-Spheres.

Sky-Vu Motel

The museum didn’t disappoint, serving up neon aplenty (like the Sky-Vu Motel sign that used to be on US 40 in Kansas City, Missouri). But the museum also educates its guests well on the history of American advertising signs, and other icons, like this Big Boy statue. But notice especially the signs behind it, individual letters all lit from behind with light bulbs. Such signs preceded the neon era.

Big Boy

But back to the neon. I’m not quite old enough to remember McDonald’s signs like this one, although I do remember my hometown still having a twin-arch walk-up Mickey D’s not far from my great-grandmother’s house.


I also remember seeing Howard Johnson’s hotels and restaurants by the roadside, but it was well past that chain’s heyday. Mom tells stories of her father, who often traveled on business during her 1950s girlhood, preferring to stay at Howard Johnson’s.

Howard Johnson's

One section of the museum set up a Main Street of sorts, with recreated storefronts lit by neon signs.


A whole bunch of signs, all from businesses local to Cincinnati, illuminate an event space in the back of the museum’s large building.


Backlit plastic signs show up here and there at the museum, as well. As a kid I liked these distinctive Shell signs. They were still pretty common when I was small.


Our tour of the museum wrapped with a visit to a neon sign shop that operates out of the museum’s building. This shop is independent from the museum, but does all of the museum’s neon restorations. Here, this fellow is joining glass tubes.

Making a neon sign

I also shot a roll of film inside the museum, but as of this writing those photos haven’t come back from the lab yet. If they turn out, I’ll do another post from the museum.

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Brick Rd.

Brick National Road near Norwich, Ohio
Canon PowerShot S95

Ohio has some deeply delightful brick and concrete sections of the old National Road, some of which you can still drive. Like this section. It’s good, rumbly brick.

Thus endeth the series of old-road photos to celebrate Down the Road’s 10th blogiversary. But I have more to say about blogging and this blog, so watch for more “Ten Years of Down the Road” posts to come.

Photography, Road Trips

Photo: Brick section of the National Road in Ohio


Peacock Road

Peacock Road
Canon PowerShot S95

This is a nearly forgotten old alignment of the National Road in Ohio, still open to traffic. But as you can see, it gets very little of that. These bricks were laid in the 1910s or 1920s.

Photography, Road Trips

Photo: Peacock Road, a part of the National Road in Ohio

History, Photography, Preservation

Goodbye Rife’s Market

Word reached me the other day that Rife’s Market, in the Grandview neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, has closed. It was a five-aisle mom-and-pop grocery that would have been a throwback even 30 years ago. Fortunately, I photographed it in 2012 while it was still operating.


I was shooting Kodak Tri-X in my Pentax ME with a good old 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M lens. My goodness, could I ever shoot that combo happily for the rest of my life. I got some good, gritty shots of Rife’s. My friend Alice and I walked by midafternoon, and then again at dusk.


Curiosity took us inside. The butcher counter and produce section were right up front, filled with Ohio meats, fruits, and vegetables. Wandering the aisles for a minute, I found some Ohio-made potato chips. I love a good chip, so I bought a bag of each brand. One brand, Gold’n Krisp, was fried in lard. Oh lordy were they delicious.


I hear that Rife’s owners were ready to retire, but didn’t want the family store not to remain in the family, so they closed it. It’s got to be a ton of work to run such a store, for probably meager profit. But I imagine the family knew most of their customers by name. While I know not the first thing about the grocery business, and would probably stink at it, being part of a community’s fabric in that way appeals to me deeply.


How may stores like this could possibly remain around the country? Not enough, to be sure.

Peacock Road

Indiana definitely has some cool old alignments of the National Road and US 40, all of which I shared on Monday. But if there were an old-alignment contest on the National Road, Ohio would win. When the road was new in the early 1800s, especially in the rough, hilly terrain east of Zanesville, it had little choice but to snake its way along. But in the 20th century’s middle years, the road was leveled and straightened. It left a whole bunch of old alignments behind.

This one is known locally as Peacock Road, and it’s just a short distance west of Old Washington. These bricks were laid in 1918 to make the National Road suitable for military transport. More than 75 continuous miles of brick was laid on Ohio’s National Road, making it the longest brick road in the nation at the time. The road is 16 feet wide with six-inch concrete curbs on each side. But you can hardly tell – thanks to being bypassed for decades now, Mother Nature is slowly taking over.

Photography, Preservation, Road Trips

Captured: Peacock Road

Stories Told

How the modern potato chip was ruined, and what you can do about it

I love a good potato chip. And good ones are hard to find.

That’s because most chips today are just salt and crunch. We want our salty snacks, but we don’t want them to be too bad for us. Most chipmakers have responded by frying in so-called “good oils” low in saturated fat and trans fat, such as corn, sunflower, and canola. It’s a shame, because what results is a dry chip with little potato flavor.

Yes, I said dry. A chip fried in saturated fats lacks no crunch, yet has a certain moisture to it. It is similar to a good pie crust, where the flaky layers melt in your mouth. Aw heck, most of you probably have no idea about that, either; who makes pie crusts anymore?

I have discovered that the fine people of Ohio are still serious about their chips. The state boasts ten companies that make them. The best known of them is probably Mikesell’s, of Dayton, which distributes its chips across much of the Midwest. Theirs were the best chips at the grocery store until they stopped frying them in pure peanut oil a few years ago.

Fortunately, Ohio has other chips up its sleeve. While I haven’t tried them all, I’m not sure I need to because I’ve tried and fallen hard for these two:


The first is Ballreich’s, made in Tiffin, which is about an hour southeast of Toledo. Their best-known chip is wavy, or “marcelled,” in Ballreich lingo. They’re a little thicker than your everyday chip, and they actually taste like potatoes. But because they’re fried in a combination of partially hydrogenated oils, they also melt a little in your mouth. They’re a little greasy, but not overbearingly so. They are a supremely satisfying chip.


The other is Gold’n Krisp, of Massillon in northeast Ohio. Be still my beating heart, but they are fried in soybean oil and lardCan I just say that I have the deepest respect for that? When I bit into my first Gold’n Krisp chip, my knees buckled and I moaned slightly, so delicious were they. It was almost a spiritual experience. They manage to be less greasy than the Ballreich chips with no loss of great potato flavor. Unlike Ballreich, Gold’n Krisp makes only these flat chips.

You can buy fresh Ballreich chips online here. I’ve done it twice; they arrive well boxed and unbroken. Gold’n Krisp hasn’t joined the Internet age, but I gather that they take orders at (330) 832-8395. You’ll pay a good deal more for these chips than you will for that bag of Lay’s at the supermarket, especially because of shipping. And you generally have to order them several bags at a time, so perhaps it’s best to stock up for your next party or cookout. But my goodness, what chips.

In an age where we don’t want our snack foods to be too unhealthy, we’ve squeezed all the life out of them. I say eat fewer chips – but when you do eat them, eat really good ones. Ballreich’s and Gold’n Krisp should be at the top of your list.

I used to write about fried chicken here, too. Favorites here, here, here, here, and here.