Small-town signs illuminate the close-knit fabric of rural communities.
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.
For a portion of each year, a huge slab of white-painted plywood reveals that Priest River is in the wild, wild West. The sign advertises the annual gun show with lettering that simply states “PRIEST RIVER GUN SHOW.” This year’s dates are painted over last year’s. The show is always held at the junior high school, right in the middle of town.
Small signs contain significant snippets of information. A blue plaque on a post pounded into the grass indicates the presence of the Masons in town. Follow another tiny sign’s arrows up the hill to find Sanborn Creek Roses. Call the number on a sign stapled to the power pole if last winter was too chilly at your house and you need to invest in some additional insulation. A realtor’s sign on a metal fence post points the way to a house for sale. Lots of those sprinkle the landscape these days, but a steady trickle of newcomers and newlyweds provides the needed buyers.
Realtors’ signs are just one way the economy affects our signage. Small businesses come and go, or come and grow. Last spring, a hand-lettered sign stapled to a stake in the dirt pointed the way to a new plant nursery. After the first rain, the ink ran and the sign wilted. But this spring, a more substantial sign is on display: PJ’s Nursery made it through the winter and is flexing for a bigger season this year.
The times are reflected in never-before-seen signage, too. We live in a rural area. Though DSL is available in town, if those of us out in the woods want to join the global online community, a sign on the corner lets us know that WildBlue can connect us to the 21st century.
A colorful parade of temporary signs marches around this corner throughout the year. Yard sales happen every weekend from early spring through late fall. On the first Saturday in May, our whole
community displays its unneeded items for one glorious day of bargaining, swapping and treasure hunting, not to mention visiting with friends and acquaintances all along the road. We mark the day on our calendars, save up our nickels and dimes, and make sure the pickup is ready to roll.
The estate sale signs are more poignant. Thirty years’ accumulation of household goods, farm equipment and miscellaneous treasures are up for grabs when Grandpa passes on and Grandma goes to live with her daughter and grandchildren. Grandma’s “old junk” is marveled over by young people unacquainted with phonograph records, metal lunchboxes and carrom boards. Sturdy spades and chicken feeders go home with new owners to carry on their useful work.
Best of all, in every season, on any given weekend, you’re likely to see a “traditional” paper-plate-with-balloons-on-ribbons sign stapled to the power pole, pointing the way to someone’s wedding or birthday or anniversary party. No matter whether the economy is limping or jobs are plentiful, family celebrations keep happening. Young people fall in love and get married, and everyone takes a day to make merry with them. Children are born and showered with good wishes and practical gifts. Youngsters reach milestone birthdays, celebrated with Spiderman or a Princess or Dora the Explorer paper plates and party hats. Everyone rejoices to see a couple reach their 20th, 30th, and 50th year of marriage.
These signs on the corner give me hope. A town is its people after all. Together we help each other through accidents and illnesses, mill closures and economic slumps. We comfort each other when our loved ones die, and congratulate each other when new loved ones arrive. We drop our coins in jars for the women’s shelter and cheer like crazy for our schools’ sports teams. We volunteer at the food bank, the community garden, the senior center, the animal shelter, the pregnancy center and dozens of other efforts to make life better for everyone in and around town.
We post our own signs on the corner once in a while, knowing that our neighbors will take notice and show up with sympathy or congratulations, a pocket full of change or a brightly wrapped gift, ready to participate in our lives and support us in whatever way the occasion requires.
Read more: Check out a collection of photographs that chronicle the Spirit of the American Barn.
LeeAnn Bonds drives by the signs on the corner on every trip from town back to her cabin in the woods. She works from home as a student services assistant for an online school, connecting to students all over the world.
Editor’s Note: Do you have any unusual signs around your neighborhood? Snap a photo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we just might publish it.
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