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Signs of change, signs of history

Signs are an everyday part of our life. Whether telling us to stop, pointing out the entrance to a shopping mall or declaring the appearance of a live band, signs are all around us. Every so often though, a certain specific sign, marquee, billboard or display catches our attention in a special way, sticking in our mind, making us smile, or making us wonder. We asked locals to name their favorite Petaluma signs, and sure enough, we received a large number of responses, some new, some old, some long gone — and some kind of funny.

For example, Mike Watt fondly remembers a Petaluma Boulevard automotive repair shop near the bowling alley that once featured a street-facing sign advertising wheel alignments.

“The sign was always out of alignment,” noted Watt, adding, “A crooked ‘e,’ I think.”

Along those same lines, Diana Spaulding wrote in calling attention attention to yet another sign with out-of-whack letters.

“We always laugh driving by the Town & Country sign with the letters falling off,” she said, referring to the shopping center with the Lucky’s grocery store, Rain Dog Records, the Aquarium Food & Spirits, a laundromat and other businesses. The tall, disheveled marquee at the parking lot entrance is notorious for the cryptic brevity of its puzzlingly random messages — “LAUNDRY DEPOT AQUARIUM.” The sign is equally famous for going unmaintained for months at a time, its black plastic letters often dangling precariously against a weather-spotted white background, when some of them aren’t falling off entirely. This leads to some odd interpretations of whatever words happened to remain. Currently, the sign declares: “LAUN DEPOT UARIUM.”

Elsewhere in town, Daitlin Ferrante enjoys the aesthetic appeal of the sign on The Buckhorn Tavern, one of those classically exuberant constructions with a glowing neon martini glass and olive, once the universal sign of a dependable drinking establishment. Another such martini-and-olive neon display is the one at Mario & John’s on D Street, the clear historic appeal of the sign a favorite of Adrian Morgan’s. We can’t leave out another iconic local neon martini glass, however: the one affixed atop the roof of Penngrove’s Twin Oaks Roadhouse.

Amanda Summerfield-Sievers likes the classic sign at Jay & Bill’s Tire Service on Petaluma Boulevard, with bold black lettering on a red plastic background and the word “TIRE” taking up most of the space.

Liza Shaw dropped a note to nominate the juxtaposition of old and new on the exterior of the historic brick building at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Petaluma Boulevard, which currently contains Wishbone restaurant, indicated by a Goliath-sized chicken clavicle. Delightfully enough, the deliciously old-school sign for the building’s previous eatery still remains, it’s name offered by Shaw as a bit of a question.

“Three Cooks Cafe (or is it two?)” she wrote.

It is three, Liza Shaw, and yes, it’s still there and it’s still pretty cool.

Shaw also appreciates the sign in front of R.O. Shelling Grain & Feed, just across the street from Wishbone.

“The sign says ‘Thank a Farmer,’ among other things,” she pointed out. It does indeed, its vertical stack of messaging carrying an array of agriculture-friendly admonitions: “Each American Farmer Feeds 155 People,” “Drink a Glass of Milk,” and “The Longest Recorded Flight of a Chicken in 13 Seconds.”

The circus-like sign on Pinky’s pizza received a number of recommendations from locals, including Kennedy Spaletta and Jennifer Elu, with other shout-outs going to the vertically-aligned American Alley sign at the edge of Putnam Plaza downtown, the Green Mill sign on the faded green water tower rising above the trees where legendary long-closed restaurant still stands.

Leslie Larson Manning and Wendy Lindberg each mentioned the ever-changing billboard sign at Petaluma Veterinary clinic, with its weekly display of pun-centric jokes and pet-friendly messages.

“Always interested to see what they put up!” said Manning.

And finally, local historian Katherine J. Rinehart wrote, “This is a great question. There are many. It is hard to pick just one. But since you asked one of my favorites is the Elm Court sign on Petaluma Boulevard.” That would be the sign for the long-gone Elm Court Motel, its sign hidden behind trees and ivy, but once a fairly glorious representation of signage as it existed in the 1940s. The sign even said “Modern” right under the word “Motel.” Little of that sign is left to see today, assuming you can even find it.

Rinehart added that any one who enjoys old signs will want to check out the Society for Commercial Archaeology, which runs an active and interesting website (sca-roadside.org) and Facebook page filled with similar examples of signage from all around the country.

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