1920's, History, memory, NY, Upstate New York

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

My last post featured a monument to a Seneca chief, that turned out to be complete rubbish. (“Gu-Ya-No-Ga, the Seneca Chief”)

Facing the facts, I finally found a fairy tale – – a fallacious fib by foxy farmers, fabricating a fable, falsifying and feigning familiarity of former times.  A fiction, fraud, fib, forgery, flimflam, and furtive falsity.  A kind of phantasm.  Phony.  A full load of phooey.

That’s all the “F” sounds I’ve got, and now my mouth is dry, let’s move on.

 

 

I took the mock monument seriously, because there was an official, state-issued, serious-looking, cast-iron plaque next to it.  How could I doubt it?  It just stood there, looking, well, like Al-Gore-on-a-stick:  blue suit, kinda square, a bit dull, but sincere and trustworthy.

 

These old roadside blue & gold-trimmed historical markers are a familiar sight around New York State.  I’ve seen them all my life, and never really paid much attention to them, until now.

Turns out, most are kind of antiques themselves.  In 1926, the Education Department started planting them up all over the state.  They didn’t have the internet, but a century ago, folks seemed to share our obsession with tagging things.  There are 2,800 of the old blue signs – my county has 40,  and next door in mostly-rural Cayuga county, there’s 176!

 

This one is relatively modern, from the ’80’s. I’m not sure if anyone has an accurate count, they just continue to put them up, year after year, implacably.

 

 

As far as I can tell, the plaque for Gu-Ya-No-Ga is the only state marker, of thousands, based on a joke.

There is a rather cryptic one, near Otsego Lake (“Glimmerglass”):

“Natty Bumpo”  Leatherstocking – Rescued Chingachgook from flames – Chingach dying in his care – “Pioneers”

Well, nobody wants a Flaming Chingachgook, it’s hard to get that odor out of the drapes.  But I’m not sure how many people nowadays would have any idea what this sign is about, and realize it’s fictional.  “Pioneers” was the 4th novel in James Fenimore Cooper’s series of Leatherstocking Tales.  But maybe they saw the movie version of the 2nd one, “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis, and get the general idea.

The Education Department stopped making these signs many years ago.  Like me, they found that the strain of being concise was too much to bear.  But since 2006, the Pomeroy Foundation has put up another 600.

 

I think New York must have more signs, of all kinds, than any other state.

I notice when driving in other states, sure, there are billboards and directions, but there just aren’t the thickets of factoids, suggestions, warnings, and orders that New York feels is necessary.  Every time I come back to NY, there’s more — last month, about a thousand toll collectors lost their jobs, and were replaced with a new swarm of signs about E-ZPass and electronic billing.

 

I just like “Rumble Strips”. Makes me think the Sharks and the Jets are up ahead on the shoulder

 

On visits to my great-uncle in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, I’ll drive down Bear Creek Road, winding and bumpy, and at night you’ll see glints from broken headlights and pieces of chrome, where some weekender ran into a tree or boulder.  NY would plaster it with Slow! Sharp Curve! 25 MPH!  No Shoulder!  Possible Indigenous Chipmunk Crossing!  etc. But there aren’t any warning signs that I can remember, I guess the Pennsylvanians credit people with enough brains to take it easy on those curves.  The scarred and paint-streaked boulders do a good job, serving as reminders.

 

Even the snowmobile paths have warning signs

 

A couple of years ago, Albany stuck up 500 more placards along the Thruway – – not directional signs, just tourism advertising.  “I Love NY” “The New York State Experience” “Taste of New York” “Path Through History” etc.  Five hundred more signs to block the view.  The feds got fed up, and threatened to cut off highway funding if they didn’t remove these distractions.  NY, at great expense, took down 400 of the signs they’d just put up, and moved them to various parking lots, etc.

There’s also all sorts of signs put on buildings by the villages or cities, historical societies, county highway departments, etc.  There’s billboard-sized history ones at all the rest stops on the Thruway.

 

There’s 139 of these big ones, from the ’60’s, mostly at rest stops on the interstates.

 

Another 1920’s series in the Finger Lakes, follows the route of the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition during the Revolution, and marks most of the forty villages the soldiers burned.

 

In the Finger Lakes region, try walking twenty feet in any direction, you’ll run into a signpost.

Trip over any large rock, and there’s probably a brass plaque stuck to it.

Sometimes they’re random, useless factoids, and only interesting, because you wonder what possessed anyone to put them on a sign.  But I find, a lot of these odd snippets of history, will prompt you to look up the whole story.

 

 

Here’s a random example –  from Montezuma, NY.  If you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never heard of Tyler, perhaps it will comfort you to know, I never did either.   But that’s how these signs work – –  I was curious and looked him up. Turns out, he was one of the founders of Syracuse.  The sign mentions “salt maker,” and then you start reading about the days when a lot of the salt used in the U.S. came from brine wells around Syracuse, and so it goes… another hour lost to browsing on the internet.  Here’s a link to his family’s pyramid.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakwood_Cemetery_(Syracuse,_New_York)#/media/File:Oakwood-Comfort-Tyler-02.jpg

 

Syracuse, NY was once called “Salt City,” and one of the primary arteries through the city is called Salina St. (stereoview from Library of Congress)

 

Col. Comfort Tyler. This was painted around 1900 by a local artist, George K. Knapp. Not really sure what’s happening here. He seems to have a cannon on his roof, there’s a dead deer in the foreground (arrow wound?  cannon?  ax?) and there’s some sort of parade going on, possibly War of 1812, or they’re trying to keep the Syracuse University basketball fans under control.

 

When the blue history markers were put up, it was a logical time for these tiny roadside histories — 1926 was also kind of a marker for roads themselves in this country.  It’s hard to visualize, in our car-obsessed era,  but for most of U.S. history, paved roads were scarce.  People were excited about rivers, canals, ships, and railroads.  But toward the end of the 19th century, the “good roads” movements – – which included farmers, millions of bicyclists, and then auto enthusiasts – – began to gain traction.  When FDR was governor of NY, and then President, he accelerated this – building farm roads, highways, and parkways.

 

Another G. K. Knapp painting, of the early days of automobiles in Syracuse.  I think the ruin in the background, might be Tyler’s house.  Maybe the cannon was too heavy for the roof.

 

When people first started traveling by car, promoters created hundreds of random names on cobbled-together routes like the “Lincoln Highway,” or “Dixie Highway,” but often long stretches were unpaved, or even just ruts across a prairie, with an occasional signpost put up by the Boy Scouts (seriously).  One of the first cars to make it across the U.S., was only able to do it, by carrying a second set of custom wheels, for driving on railroad tracks.

Between 1914 and 1926, the miles of paved roads had more than doubled, and the official U.S. numbering system began (basically the system we have now, Route 66, etc.), instead of just having names, like the “Albany Post Road,” “Natchez Trace,” “El Camino Real,” and “Oregon Trail.” *

 

By the ’20’s, there were millions of people driving around — I was surprised to learn that they made over 3 million cars in 1926!  By the end of the decade, there were something like 26 million cars on the road.

So 1926 was also when Burma-Shave stated putting up their roadside signs, poetic gems like:

Every shaver / Now can snore / Six more minutes / Than before / By using / Burma-Shave

 

So in 1926, the state educators jumped on the bandwagon, minus the poetry.  Here’s a sampling from around the state, and I didn’t make any of them up.

“Henry Hudson, Explorer, Here ended the voyage of the Half Moon, In quest of the Indies, September 1609”

“Clermont.  Near the foot of Madison Avenue, Robert Fulton in Aug. 1807, Completed the first successful steamboat voyage.”

A modern replica of the Halve Maen (“Half Moon”), photo from the state museum site.

These two signs are near Albany, our state capital (just south of where the Mohawk River joins the Hudson).  A lot of voyages and quests have terminated there, in a snarl of confusion & crookery, regulations & red tape.

Henry probably wouldn’t have made it to China, going by way of Schenectady.  You can do it, although it’s not really the best route.  But we’ll never know – he got to Albany and couldn’t get the right permits to go any farther.

Or maybe the locals, like all true New Yorkers, refused to admit they had no idea how to get to China, and gave him bad directions, sending him by way of northern Canada.

Where two years later, his crew finally got fed up, and abandoned him in Hudson Bay (this last part is true, poor guy).

 

This was the 1909 Half Moon replica, a gift from the Netherlands.

 

If Henry had just made it up the Mohawk as far as Utica, he could’ve bought his mutinous crew Half-Moon Cookies, maybe smoothed things over.  They’re a central NY specialty  –  devil’s food chocolate cookie, flipped over, with buttercream icing, half vanilla/half cocoa.

(Well, ok, actually they weren’t invented until the ’20’s, but they’re pretty great! They’re NOT the same thing as NYC black-and-white cookies, Half-Moons are way better.)

 

The second sign is about the boat “Clermont” and the beginning of the end for sailing vessels.  Robert Fulton partnered with Robert Livingston, a NY politician and one of the Founding Fathers, who, in the interests of liberty & democracy, etc. got himself a monopoly on traveling the Hudson by steamboat.

They established a commuter run, NYC-Albany, that covered the 145 miles in only 36 hours, pretty competitive with current Amtrak service.

 

1909 replica of the Clermont (Library of Congress)

 

You know, for years, until I wrote this post and took a closer look, I believed the state flag had both these vessels on it.  Someone must’ve told me that, but it’s not so.  It’s just two random ships.

 

More old blue signs:

“Cheese Factory, First in Town of Berne, Built in 1878, And made 495 pounds in a single day.”

By gum, who wouldn’t find this exciting, and useful to know?

Whether Upstate NY or Wisconsin, I’ve always been surrounded by cheeseheads, so I took a keen interest in this one.

One day’s production would keep a dozen Americans cheesed for a year.  Or eight Danes.

 

“Andre captured here in 1780.  Three honest militiamen arrested Major John Andre, Adjt-Gen. British Army, disguised, Preventing disaster to American cause.”

André, of course, was the head of the British Secret Service in America, and was caught, and hanged, just after Benedict Arnold handed him the plans to the fortifications at West Point.

It was obviously unusual, and noteworthy, that the local militiamen were honest.   And one of them could read (true).

When they found the West Point documents, hidden in his stockings, André told them the plans were for the Army-Navy football game.  The militiamen conferred, and decided neither football, or even rugby, would be invented for another ninety years, and anyways, what was with the snobby little accent mark on this guy’s name?  Nobody used la cédille in these parts.  And maybe he was French, with a name like that?

Congress and France had signed a Treaty of Alliance, but that didn’t mean the Westchester County Militia had to trust Monsieur Fancy Boots.  A guy who wore socks, even though he had boots, and was maybe a redcoat, or maybe he hailed from the country that started half of the French & Indian War.  André then tried to bribe them with his horse and pocketwatch, but since they were honest, and had muskets, why couldn’t they just take that stuff anyway.   So they hanged him.  And his fancy accent mark, too, for good measure.

Many militia bands in those years, were less partisans than brigands.  The old courthouse in Goshen, about 25 miles west of West Point, had a skull embedded above the doorway, which they obtained from Claudius Smith, leader of one of these bands of marauders.

 

“Decker’s Tavern.  Here Modeline, the Indian who scalped Tom Quick, Sr., Reenacted the old man’s death agony.  He was shot for it by Tom Quick, Jr.”

There are several markers, in both NY and Pennsylvania, concerning Tom Quick “The Indian Slayer,” who depending on your viewpoint was a (1) brave frontiersman (2) teller of tall tales in taverns, or (3) psychotic murderer.

 

“Home of Jethro Wood, Inventor of Cast Iron Plough” 

“The First Cast Iron Plow in the World, Was Made by Jethro Woods, At Foot of Falls, 1819” 

“Site of Home, John Wood.  Field Officers were voted for here, May 11,1776.  Also Birthplace John Wood’s son, Jethro Wood, Inventor First Iron Mould Plow (1814)”

They were certainly excited about plows in 1926.

Everyone knows John Deere, who invented the steel plow.  But before him, was Jethro Wood, and his iron plow, who rated three of these plaques, in three different towns.

Sometimes I’ve seen these markers along a road, but there’s no shoulder, and I can’t stop, or even slow down enough to read them.  It occurred to me, that maybe it would be better to spread them out, like the old Burma Shave signs, so people could read them without pulling over.  So, for example:

Jethro Wood

Was pretty good.

His iron plough

Was good enough

the rocky soil to till.

It had no peer

At least until

Vermont’s John Deere

Made one better still.

Here’s a link to a complete inventory of the original signs.  http://www.aphnys.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Historical-Markers-Listing-2018-07.pdf

These 1926 history plaques were supposedly for the 150th anniversary of the Revolution, but I think the project had more to do with the lack of booze.  People were stuck in the middle of Prohibition, and needed something to do, some kind of a hobby.  Just like us now, during the Pandemic, frantic after being housebound for so long, sticking little labels on everything in the cupboard and on the workbench, ordering up Tupperware, bins, and desk organizers, alphabetizing our record collections, etc.  Rearranging the canned goods by expiration date, building replicas of the Eiffel Tower with rolls of toilet paper.

Personally, during the past nine months, I’ve had each of my socks embroidered with individual names, to help keep them in pairs.  Lewis & Clark, Abbott & Costello, Orville & Wilbur, Darryl & His Other Brother Darryl.

 

This is a recent addition, and not one from the ’20’s – ’30’s.

These history markers were approved for all kinds of stuff.  Old-time schools, bridges, churches, battles, trails, native villages, etc. and residences or burial places of famous people.

Businesses – gristmills, woolen mills, saw mills, smithies, mines, hotels, etc. – are all mentioned.

Quite often, there’s no place to park and read these signs. It’s probably dangerous to pull over on the shoulder sometimes, but I’m trusting to nerd immunity.

 

You can tell a lot about a culture, and time, by what it names and celebrates.

There are markers for lots and lots of inns and taverns – in the old days, they were essential social centers, meeting places for politicians, revolutionaries and militias. But among these Prohibition-era markers, there’s not one for a brewery, distillery, malt house, or winery!

The colonial Dutch started building breweries in the 1640’s, and alcohol was an essential part of life in the old days, a huge industry.  In the 1800’s, NY grew more hops than any other state, but there are no markers for hop farms or oast houses.  Even George Washington made whiskey, for pete’s sake, and owned one of the largest distilleries in the country.  But in 1926, during Prohibition, alcohol wasn’t deemed worthy of a single mention.  Not even Schaefer, Rheingold or Knickerbocker!?

What else is missing?  Women.  Out of 2800 signs, I only saw a handful.  Ann Lee, leader of the Shaker sect, is mentioned, Harriet Tubman, some general’s widow, a county named for the Dutchess of York (that’s how they spelled Duchess in the old days).  Emily Chubbuck a/k/a Fanny Forrester, who in her 37 years managed to be a teacher, writer, poet, and missionary.  Yep, I never heard of her either, but doesn’t she sound like someone you should look up?  Sybil Ludington, who also has a couple of statues and a Bicentennial stamp, for doing a Paul Revere-style ride, except Sybil didn’t get caught.

And another thing, sign after sign points to all kinds of citizens of good repute, but not one house of ill repute?  Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a plaque “Washington Didn’t Sleep Here”?

 

 

*P.S.   In the 1950’s, when Eisenhower called for an interstate system, he was probably thinking of his transcontinental drive in 1919, part of an army convoy, from Washington, D.C. to the world’s fair in San Francisco.  They took two months, and claimed to have rocketed along at 5.67 mph.  Counting the days they spent resting along the way, probably averaged closer to 2 mph.

The Eisenhower interstates, actually one of FDR’s ideas, were the largest public works project in U.S. history, a federal Ten Year Plan completed in only 36 years.  And now it’s way overdue to have all those roads and bridges replaced, currently rated D+ by the engineers, but nothing that $588 billion couldn’t fix.

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31 thoughts on “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

  1. There must be a balance when it comes to road signs. Too few, and you get lost. Too many, especially the useless ones, and you will also get lost. I realize that the US has a lot of interesting history. But your sampling of various signs and posts shows that too much trivia can bore the citizens of NY and the tourists to death. I have heard that there might be a connection between influential people in the road sign business and the department of highways. Some of the signs you showed, Robert, cost at least a thousand dollars to set up. Multiply this by a thousand or more …

    • Thank you, Peter, I agree there has to be limits on all this business. There are apps which use GPS coordinates to link people to history sites, sometimes displaying photos of where you’re standing in past times, and that’s one sign-free alternative.

  2. George says:

    Wonderful riff on your ubiquitous signage, not just the obscure history they keep alive but the culture of creating the signs in the first place.

    I love the idea of reimagining the signs in the style of the Burma Shave billboards for the benefit of motorists, and rumble strips will take on a whole new meaning. On that theme, we seem to have an abundance over here of villages apparently populated by “SLOW children”, and a recent slightly surreal trend for road signs which say “Sign not in use”, which is kind of lie when you think about it.

    • Thank you, George. “Sign not in use”? what could that mean? Like in documents, “This page intentionally left blank.”
      Sorry to hear of village streets swarming with less-than-astute children, must be annoying.
      I didn’t mention the state’s new electronic billboards, with traffic warnings (generally posted several hours after the accident has been cleared away) and slogans like “One Small Ask, Wear a Mask”
      Do they have the musical rumble strips in UK? You drive on them at a certain speed, and they play a tune. I’m unbelievably impressed how clever that is.

      • George says:

        No! We don’t have those. Or at least, not in my experience. They sound fantastic.

        That “page intentionally left blank”, is exactly what I think of when I see “Sign intentionally left blank”.

        Worryingly, we now have a spate of road signs saying “cats eyes removed”, which seems a bit harsh.

        My favourite road sign was reported in the news about 5 years ago. In Wales, all signs are in English and Welsh. As Welsh isn’t as widely spoken as the Welsh authorities would like it to be, at least not by people who work for the authorities, the text of all road signs in Cardiff are emailed to a translator. He’s very efficient and emails back the Welsh almost immediately.

        When they emailed him the text for a sign indicating that a road led only to an industrial estate, it seemed like business as usual. Back came the reply and the sign was duly erected. Three months later, someone wrote to the council to ask why the sign said in English, “No through road. Access only”, while in Welsh, it said, “I’m out of the office for two weeks. I will reply to your email on my return.”

  3. I like these better than the signs alluded to in the song with a similar title. Although I lived in Syracuse for a few childhood years, I never heard of the salt industry there. I wonder if that is why the Syracuse athletic teams were also called “Saltine Warriors” before removal of Native American mascots from sports teams. Well, I just read up a bit and it turns out to not be related to the “salt mines”. I stand better informed.

    • Thank you, Steve. I was thinking of that song when I used that title. I had to look it up, 1971, I hadn’t realized it was a Canadian band – -still performing!
      I don’t really follow SU sports, but I do kind of like their current mascot, Otto the Orange.
      They actually have a salt museum in the park on Onondaga Lake, but it’s never been open when I was there. It’s hard to believe they could have evaporative ponds, to dry out the salt brine, given the climate in Syracuse.

    • I was just reading that Syracuse U had a whole legend based on a fake chief, too, with a pretty cool statue on the imaginary burial site. Chief Ogeekeda Hoschenegada of the Onondaga, just another spoof.

  4. It’s comforting to see that even if the pandemic has reduced you to embroidering your socks in pairs, it hasn’t blunted your inventive and humorous edges. The word oast, which I’d never seen before and probably many others hadn’t, either, makes it look like you meant to write coast. Wouldn’t you much prefer to live in a coast house than an oast house?

    Speaking of la cédille, even in English I always write façade rather than facade, which looks like it should be pronounced fakade; no facile fakes for me, thank you very much.

    In your sign database I checked Nassau County, where I grew up. Of the three townships in the county, North Hempstead didn’t rate a single sign, nor did the cities of Glen Cove and Long Beach. Strangely, the sign saying “WANTAGH, FIRST SETTLEMENT 1644, NAMED IN MEMORY OF GRAND SACHEM OF MONTAUKS, 1651-1658” is listed twice, once for each of two locations.

    • Thank you, Steve. Yes, I saw some duplicate signs in that list, and several entire counties have none of these history signs.
      My hometown has 0, which seems odd with all the local history maniacs around, but it has instead one of those giant ones (about Memorial Day), that are usually on the Thruway. And two big rocks (Clinton-Sullivan, Lafayette) a small obelisk, stone archway, a couple of NPS signs, war monuments, Civil War centographs (symbolic grave markers – – that was a new word for all of us), etc. I guess there’s more than enough signage & rocks around there.

    • Thanks, Neil, I actually really like that guy, of course, and I like that he jokes about his own nerdy image, like when he said “I’m so boring, my Secret Service code name is ‘Al Gore’ “

  5. Darts and Letters says:

    I’m an obsessive historical marker reader, I can’t just walk past one. it really annoys my family sometimes, I think. especially if we’re at a rest area and it’s a giant petrified stump on display. I’d be in heaven in NY but they do seem mildly excessive. Half Moon cookies look amazing, i read about the bakery just now on the mr. Food web site and a huge pop up ad for Sensodyne toothpaste marred my view of the recipe but not before I saw the cookie has a chocolate cake base, interesting

    • Usually I don’t like stuff with a lot of frosting on it, but Half Moons can be really good.
      Yeah, I’m basically the same, have to read every sign. It’s like visiting the small town historical societies & old houses, etc. if you get the right docent, it can be fascinating and fun, and you’re glad to hear all about lighthouse-keepers or something. And sometimes you get trapped with somebody droning about local family trees and ain’t it a shame they don’t have hangings anymore.
      There’s some displays around, with old photos, like at the old navy training base, and that’s kind of cool, to see how that spot looked 75 years ago, or whatever

  6. I may have missed it, hidden among all these funny and fascinating details, but I’m wondering: do your New York signs have signs posted alerting people to their existence? In Texas, there are hundreds of roadside historical markers, and their presence always is announced with another sign that says something like “Historical Marker 1 Mile on Right.” The unspoken message is, “You’d better stop and have a look, Sister, because you need to know this.”

    There’s actually a book I have that details every historical marker in the state, cross-referenced by county and town. It’s really pretty cool. If you’re going to a place you’ve never visited, you can skim the book ahead of time to see which markers are there, and whether there’s something of interest.

    Now I’m wondering whether the half-moons are somehow related to southern moon pies. I’m off to look for the connection, since the chance of getting one of the treats is pretty slim right now!

    • Hi LInda – I think in some counties, the signs are so thick on the ground, that signs alerting you to the marker a mile ahead, would trap you in a loop, you’d never get out of there.
      And there’s so many I didn’t mention. The Church of LDS has signs directing pilgrims to their religious sites, one is a log cabin just south of my village. I was looking at some pictures of the Watkins Glen area, and realized there’s a new crop of brown signs, marking the route of the original road race, and there’s some signs now for “Wine Trails” and pretty sure the “Cheese Trail” folks will have some up soon.
      I’ve seen Moon Pies for sale in the Cracker Barrel restaurants, but I’ve never tried them, I don’t eat a lot of sweets very often. But of course this time of year, I’m looking forward to homemade cookies, my sister makes tons of different kinds, that aren’t sugary, really good.

  7. Another F-word: Fascinating post! Loved the alliteration–and I’m inspired now to see how many signs I can find. What a great outdoor, social-distancing project for a Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks Team to do:)

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