Community Signs: Mile Markers of Country Life
Small-town signs illuminate the close-knit fabric of rural communities.
Sign in wheelbarrow reading "Welcome to Beautiful downtown Talkeetna."
I perpetually hear mention of the “signs of the times.” I’ll tell you where the signs of the times are, at least in my world: Some of them are on the corner of Highway 2 and Eastside Road; maybe near you there’s a set at the corner of Highway 3 and Maple Road. The collection of signs on the typical corner in my town is revealing. The homemade impromptu sign speaks volumes about our geography, culture, economy and social structure – come to think of it, who is getting married this weekend? The stories behind each of these signs are much more than a few painted words can convey.
Drive into our town from the east, and a small rectangular sign announces you are crossing the Priest River, our town’s namesake. It’s a handsome little north Idaho burg nestled into the confluence of two rivers: the Priest and the Pend Oreille. The Priest River drains from Priest Lake, named for the Jesuits who settled there in the mid-19th century. The Pend Oreille heads west out of Lake Pend Oreille, is joined by the Priest here in town, turns north at the Idaho-Washington border, and loops into Canada before flowing into the Columbia River.
The official green population sign (just above the 35-mile-an-hour sign) indicates that 1,754 people live in Priest River, but the sign hasn’t been updated to reflect the last census, so that number is 12 years old. No telling whether it will go up or down, but either way, there are many more members of the community living on outlying farms, ranches and forested homesteads than the sign indicates.
The signs at the corner of Highway 2 and Eastside Road describe the local culture. The “Welcome to Priest River” sign, fashioned from a wood plank and mounted on wooden poles, features a huge round saw blade from a local mill on which is painted “A Progressive Timber Community.” Even after the mill closures, logging trucks are our constant companions on local roads, and each truck represents essential income for one or more families in the community.
The back of the saw blade says, “Arrivaderci!” Italian immigrants, in large part, originally settled Priest River. At the bottom of this sign, a reminder for the town’s Timber Days festival, our biggest annual event, is pretty much hidden by overgrown shrubbery. Someone will take it upon him- or herself to make it visible closer to July.
The permanent sign collection includes another wooden edifice that reads, “Welcome from the Churches of Priest River.” Boards carved with each church’s name hang one below another. The top edge of the top plank has broken off, lopping off the tips of the WELCOME letters. The list of churches is incomplete, and some names have changed since it was erected. The whole thing tilts slightly off plumb. I can assure you that, crooked sign or not, the community of believers around here truly does welcome visitors with open arms and hearts.
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