Last month, Tallahassee celebrated the 100th anniversary of the local convention that helped initiate the Old Spanish Trail. This road system was a reaction to the automobile boom of the early 1900s and it capitalized on travelers seeking adventure. The highway would eventually stretch from St. Augustine to San Diego and would create the east-west thoroughfare known in our area as Highway 90.
As the tourism industry grew, businesses competed for customers with eye-catching, roadside signage. The brighter and more theatrical, the better. With the popularity of incandescent lights, signs began to flicker on all across the country and when the Old Spanish Trail officially opened in 1929, neon signage was just beginning to become a fixture of advertising in America.
“I love old signs,” said Katharyn Jones, art teacher at Ruediger Elementary School. In an effort to commemorate the Old Spanish Trail in her art class, Jones began researching signage and she developed a brilliant lesson for her third- and fourth-grade students. First, she provided the historic context for the lesson. She dug through archives and old photographs to show her students what Highway 90 would have looked like several generations ago.
“We focused on the Florida portion of the highway from Jacksonville to Pensacola Beach. We looked at all kinds of signs and a lot of them were neon or marquee so that’s what we focused on.”
The classes all watched videos that illustrated how neon signs are made.
“We watched how they bend the glass tubes and what gases are put into them to make what colors.” Narrowing the scope, Jones then began concentrating on the local and contemporary connections.
Jones isolated letters from signs that can currently be found along Highway 90. “I picked a mix of local businesses and chains. Publix is corporate but we feel connected to it, that’s our grocery store.”
Jones challenged students to guess where each letter had originated from.
“Taco Speak, Chubby’s Chicken, Guthrie’s, Waffle House. When they see letters from signs that they recognize, they freak out. Some were harder than others like Bethel, Four Points by Sheraton, Mr. Roboto, U-Haul, and Walgreens. By the end, they’re so charged up, they’re practically screaming the letters.”
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