It’s our last day in Cincinnati, we’re in the Camp Washington neighborhood to check out the American Sign Museum. Tod Swormstedt, former editor and publisher of Signs of the Times magazine has taken his passion for signs and opened a museum in a former parachute factory with 19,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space. Historic signs, books, photos and documents reflecting the art, craft and history of sign-making hang from the ceiling, rest on the floor, fill walls, shelves and display cases. From the days of pictures drawn on cave entrances to colorful signs hanging from shops to the gas-lit illuminated signs of the late 1800’s on to the electrical signs of the early 1900’s, neon and finally plastics, signs have always been a part of the landscape. Signs tell us our location and how to get somewhere, the nature of a building, what brand we should buy, where we should eat, shop, play, stay. The museum highlights the sign industry from the days of goldleaf glass signs through the heyday of neon to the plastic era of the 1950’s.
Driving down Monmouth vintage signs catch our eye; this must be the place. Parking in the lot, signs surround us, the familiar Holiday Inn with its signature green lettering, a giant hammer from a hardware store, a 20′ bowling pin. At first glance it appears a man on a ladder is in the process of painting the exterior brick wall, a closer look reveals it’s a mural depicting the old-fashioned process of painting signs on the side of a building–this one is amazing! The neon El Rancho motel sign is great, with all of this in the parking lot, I can hardly wait to see what’s inside. Crossing the threshold under the gigantic genie, inside we pay our admission then walk as directed toward the giant yellow arrow with its flashing light bulbs. A rainbow of neon welcomes us to the first gallery; a 50’s style sputnik with light bulb letters twirls, large-scale neon signs, illuminated plastic signs and art deco-style pieces compete for our attention. Neon signs in original crates, pop-culture classics such as Gulf, Shell, Greyhound and Col. Sanders fill the room. Ice cream cones, a swinging golfer on a golf ball, and a motel signs are fantastic to look at.
Main Street is lined with pavers, shops on both sides of the street are home to every variety of sign from hand-painted to an authentic Mc Donalds sign featuring Mr. Speedee; the original blueprint sits nearby. Taverns, motels, banks, bars and restaurants are all represented. Shop windows hold displays of the art of sign-painting; brushes, paint and alphabet samples even books teaching the skill. There are glass doors with hand-painted letters and numbers reminding me of the Fisher Building in Detroit, make your own sign kits with decals, neon art deco clocks, enameled metal signs for Goodyear. Hand-lettered showcards from Las Vegas featuring Frank Sinatra and Charo remind us that signs serve many purposes from commerce to culture. We walk up and down Main Street reveling in the colors, kitsch and memories. Cars outlined in neon circle a globe, Howard Johnson’s offers us ice cream in 28 flavors, the Acapulco sign with dual palm trees is fabulous!
Huge signs take up space in the back section; the side of a barn is mounted on the wall, Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco is the message painted in block letters. SEE BEAUTIFUL ROCK CITY atop LOOKOUT MT reads another. Our favorite is the Habig’s sign with the tipping champagne glass, stand close and you can hear the mechanics of the light bulbs flashing off and on, so cool! A working neon shop, Neonworks has their own section where they create and repair neon signs, sometimes you can even watch them work. We finish up our visit, stopping to read placards along the way, the histories and timelines are fascinating. The museum is absolutely delightful, so glad we came.
We’re having lunch on Hamilton Ave in the Northside neighborhood, Melt Eclectic Cafe offers healthy gourmet sandwiches, fresh salads and soups. We order at the counter then sit in the front window section to wait for our food. Our East Village wrap arrives; rosemary goat cheese, pesto, roasted red peppers, smoked turkey and arugula wrapped up tight and a side of curried potato salad–both are delicious. After lunch we stroll down the street, except for one new development Northside looks much the same as it always has; local entrepreneurs fill street level shops in beautiful historic buildings, a lovely selection of housing stock is available. I love the mural with daisies covering a powder blue background. We stop in at Bee Haven which sells a variety of products including honey, beeswax candles and chocolate, we try a few samples, I grab some lip balm and we’re off. Taking our time we wander in and out of Happy Chicks Bakery, a Cluxton Alley coffee shop called Collective Espresso, Shake It Records selling new and used vinyl, CD’s and DVD’s, a vintage shop called Chicken Lays An Egg with racks and racks of funky clothing, shoes and accessories. The neighborhood is home to a diverse population; college students, the creative class, young professionals and GLBTQ all live in the historic district.
We grab a coffee at Sidewinder, hop in the Jeep and start our journey north. It has been a great few days in Cincinnati but it’s time to head home. Kris is taking the scenic route; in West Liberty OH he veers off on State Route 245, it is here you will find the largest of all the cave systems in Ohio at the Ohio Caverns. The caverns were discovered in August 1897 by farm hand Robert Noffsinger, when he informed the landowner of his discovery, William Reams explored the caverns for himself then opened the cave to the public in September 1897. After 25 years of people removing crystals, touching formations and writing their names on walls and ceilings with smoke from oil lamps, the area was destroyed. In 1922 two brothers bought the land and spent 3 1/2 years digging out mud left in the tunnels by the underground river that formed the cavern, they dug out a 1-mile route, strung light bulbs powered by a Fordson tractor on the surface and opened the business as the Ohio Caverns in 1925. Concrete floors were put in in the 1970’s and a lighting professional came in the 1980’s creating concrete sconces and less obstructive lighting. The tour still uses the 1925 route.
We purchase tickets in the gift shop, a tour is just about to start, good timing… We descend the concrete stairway to the cave entrance, though the pathway is narrow it does not feel constricting, water drips from the cave ceiling, it has been raining for days, shallow puddles form on the walkway. Our tour guide is friendly and informative, she shines the beam of her flashlight on significant formations as we go. Artificial light from nearby bulbs has caused moss to grow in a few areas, care is now taken to turn off lights as the group progresses through the cave. The pathway is smooth, the ceiling low, formations are everywhere. Stalactites cling to the ceiling, stalagmites sprout from the floor, soda straws hang from above. Walls vary in patterns, textures and colors. The Crystal Sea is a water retention pool that holds excess water out of the walkway, the ceiling reflects on the surface of the pool, a bevy of crystals clustered together, so pretty. The Natural Bridge holds nearly 20 crystal columns and is the original floor of the tunnel, they left the columns intact when they dug the pathway, digging under the columns, forming the natural bridge.
One section holds more soda straws and helictites than any other area of the cavern, they call it Fantasy Land, yep, I can see that. Our guide shines her light on a formation and asks the group what it looks like, this is Old Town Pump, it really does look like a hand pump. The formations remind me of icicles, carrots, coral. Crystal King is estimated to be over 200,000 years old and was last measured at almost 5′ long. There’s a tranquility in the cave that’s hard to describe, maybe it’s being so far underground. We stop to look at the ‘good luck’ crystal, the top now stained brown from years of being touched by visitors, a no-touch rule has now been established. We enter the Palace of the Gods, rich in color it feels lavish compared to the other areas. The variety of colors on the walls come from iron oxide and manganese dioxide, lavish surfaces of flowstone, calcite formations, columns and dual formations make this section unique. The Jewel Room is the most colorful, the color splits down the middle of the room making one side a rusty iron oxide color, the other a darker color from manganese dioxide deposits. This is the end of the tour. A recording of Beautiful Ohio starts to play, a time-honored tradition since 1928.
This is the end of our tour too. We hope you have enjoyed tagging along with us on our southern Ohio adventure. See you back in Detroit!