Restored Coke sign adds life to downtown Norton

Mike Still • Aug 21, 2019 at 11:53 AM

NORTON — The city will see an 83-year-old friend return to illuminate part of Park Avenue.

On Tuesday, city officials joined a Coca-Cola Consolidated representative and the crew responsible for bringing back to life the Coca-Cola neon sign and clock that had hung over downtown since 1936.

Mayor Joe Fawbush, City Manager Fred Ramey and building owner Jeremiah Sturgill took to the podium with Coca-Cola Consolidated representative Blair Belk and Kinsey Neon & Sign project leader Darrell Thompson to light the metal sign for the first time in decades.

“This sign, like this city, has weathered many difficult things through the years,” Fawbush told a crowd gathered along Park Avenue. “Sometimes the best projects are not easy.”

Belk said that Coca-Cola has had a Ghost Sign Restoration program that works with communities to restore old signs and painted building advertisements, and Ramey approached the company about five years ago. The Norton project, though, baffled even Coca-Cola Consolidated’s researchers.

“Our archive department in Atlanta had no record of a clock sign,” Belk said.

That was when Kinsey Neon & Sign entered the project.

Thompson said that his team took on the project at Ramey’s and the city council’s request, and the restoration uncovered some of the sign’s past.

“This is the only one of its kind,” Thompson said. “More than likely it was built by Federal and shipped from Chicago by rail because it was too big and heavy to be carried by trucks on the roads around here at the time.”

According to the online Encyclopedia of Chicago — http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/2661.html — the Federal Electric Co. began making electric signs in 1901 and changed hands and names starting in the 1930s.

Kinsey has been in the electric and neon sign business since the 1920s, Thompson said, and that expertise fitted well with the project. Using the skills of neon tube bender John Messick, the crew also drew on old photos and techniques of similar sign work for the restoration.

Thompson and his crew were able to keep about 95 percent of the original sheet and structural metal in their restoration, but they had to deal with more than eight decades’ worth of corrosion and impact damage. The sign had begun falling into disrepair in the 1960s, and the exterior was altered with a curved metal panel at the sign’s lower edges to conceal deterioration.

A fire in the mid-1990s destroyed what was the nearby Nard’s furniture building, and the heat also damaged the sign’s exterior paint while accelerating corrosion damage.

At one time, a tall truck also struck the sign, Thompson said.

“It’s not had a good life,” he noted.

“This was hung by manpower with ropes and pulleys, not with a crane truck,” Thompson said. “Railway workers probably assisted with hanging it too. It’s seen many parades, many elections and most of the history of this city.”

The restored sign also brings back something that has been missing in downtown since Bank of America closed its city offices less than a decade earlier: a publicly visible clock.

The city maintains a digital sign with a clock along Park Avenue, but drivers and pedestrians wanting to see the time and temperature have to wait for the display to cycle through community announcements. The sign’s clock is more modern, with electronic adjustment and a provision for changes to and from Daylight Saving Time, but onlookers see the clock face with hands that generations of city residents saw for years.

While the Coca-Cola sign will not have a thermometer, a driver now can tell the time without having to check a cell phone or digital watch.

“I hope it’ll last another hundred years,” Thompson told the crowd. “Enjoy your clock.”

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