Tom Ross: Painting a piece of Steamboat history
May 29, 2010
Steamboat Springs — On our way out of town Friday morning, I was still under the impression that Del Lockhart had invited me to accompany him and Dwight Willman on a morning outing because they wanted me to photograph them repainting several of the familiar F.M. Light & Sons highway signs. It sounded like fun to me.
It wasn't until Del handed me a little can with a foam paintbrush in it that I understood I wasn't just along for the ride. I personified unskilled labor. Del and his brother, Ty, represent the fourth generation of family ownership of F.M. Light & Sons at 830 Lincoln Ave. in downtown Steamboat Springs.
Minutes after we left the city limits, I was climbing an old wooden ladder propped against a sign on the east side of Colorado Highway 131, painting over the faint shape of the words "tie to," as in, "Levi Overalls, a Good Brand to Tie To."
Did you realize that Levi's doesn't make overalls? Fact is, they never did make bib overalls.
"We get people coming into the store and asking us to show them the Levi's overalls," Lockhart told me. "We tell them Levi's doesn't make them anymore, and they say, 'But your sign says …' I tell them Levi's didn't originally call their bluejeans jeans. They called them overalls. That's why we still have that sign up."
The anecdote reflects the historic character of the 99 homespun advertising signs that dot the sides of highways in Northwest Colorado. They stretch from west of Maybell to Gore Pass, almost to Kremmling and back into North Park. They advertise everything from Navajo rugs to cowboy hats. And yes, you still can buy a cowboy hat from F.M. Light for $4.98, just like the signs always haves promised.
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F.M. Light & Sons was founded in 1905 by Lockhart's great-grandfather, Frank M. Light. It was his grandfather Clarence who came up with the idea in 1928 to use signs to promote the store. He erected 260 signs within a 150-mile radius of Steamboat, and the number later grew to 300.
More than 150 of the signs disappeared from roadsides when former first lady Lady Bird Johnson's highway beautification act led to the removal of billboards from many of the nation's highways.
Today, the remaining signs are considered historic. Each one is numbered and registered with the state. And an annual fee is paid for each sign, Lockhart said.
I'm sure there are people who don't care for the bright yellow signs. Personally, I'm glad billboards haven't been allowed to proliferate in our rural landscape. However, I've come to treasure the F.M. Light & Sons signs, with their crudely painted emblem of a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronc. To me, they are genuine Steamboat.
It's the fact that the signs are tied into the history of the region, and that they always have been hand-lettered and not modernized, that makes them so appealing.
Taking care of 99 signs (let alone 300) is a big chore, but Lockhart said he and his brother (both paint signs each spring) wouldn't have it any other way. They were raised painting signs by their parents, Lloyd and Annabeth, and their own children are involved today.
Del feels the rich tradition of his grandfathers and takes encouragement from the fact that even former employees like Willman attach importance to keeping the tradition going.
"We tried a few modern signs, and it just didn't feel right," Lockhart said. "We keep a logbook in the store, and people write things like, 'Love your signs. Keep it up. Thanks for staying in business.'"
Willman said during his 10 years at the store, he was aware that many people traveling across the country stopped on Steamboat's main street to check out the store after seeing the signs, only to do business at nearby businesses and in some cases, make an impromptu decision to stay overnight.
So, that's how I found myself out on the highway Friday with a can of sticky black paint.
The annual process of keeping the signs standing begins with a little TLC. The private property owners who allow the signs to occupy their land receive annual gift certificates.
Most of the signs don't need painting every year, Lockhart said, but all of them get checked over. The first chore is to fix any damage to the lumber that might have occurred during the winter.
"Bulls love to rub on them, and they tear the signs up," he said. "We've had wheels come off semi trucks and destroy signs. We go through a lot of 2-by-6s and pounds of nails every year."
The second step in refurbishing an F.M. Light sign is painting over the entire surface, including the lettering, with a fresh coat of highway yellow.
The signs' black letters and logo show through the yellow paint, making it easy to come back after the yellow paint dries and redo the lettering. That's where I came in Friday, as all three of us combined to repaint several signs. I was clumsy at first and painted a couple of glitches onto the fresh yellow paint.
"Just leave them," Willman said. "They look a lot better when you're going by at 55 miles per hour."
Lockhart didn't miss a beat.
"Yeah, but in your case, Dwight, people need to go by at 65 miles per hour" for the mistakes to be overlooked.
Later, at another sign, when I'd proven myself as a sign painter, Lockhart gave me a more difficult task.
"I want you to paint that letter L where The Ax Man damaged it," he said.
It turns out that back in the 1970s, there was a person who disliked the signs so intensely, he used a chain saw to cut them down and then cut gashes in the metal signs with an ax.
Thirty or 40 years later, Lockhart refers to him almost affectionately as "The Ax Man."
We moved on to Oak Creek Canyon and put fresh letters on the Levi's Overalls sign, and here's a little secret I'll share with you if you promise not to rat me out. After Lockhart left to haul a ladder back to the truck, I signed my initials on the lower left corner of the sign. Look for them the next time you find yourself driving back to Steamboat from South Routt.
Just don't tell Del it was me.