The bright, neon, art-deco sign that hung above Sward-Kemp drug store in St. James for decades is again burning brightly following a restoration process spearheaded by the St. James Historical Society.
The sign was taken down in August 2001, after the drug store closed in July of that year, and it sat in the historical society’s garage as it waited for restoration, said the historical society’s Pam Sandbo. The process took even longer than expected, because the vendor in Mankato the historical society was working with had to send the sign up to the Twin Cities for neon replacement, but it’s been back home and lit up for roughly two months.
As often happens in cases of historical restoration, costs ran higher--nearly double, in fact--than the initial estimate, so the historical society is hoping for donations to help cover the expenses relating to the sign, said the historical society’s Tom Anderson. Three new transformers were put into the sign, not to mention all the neon work, but they did not repaint the sign.
“Leaving the original paint was paramount,” Anderson said. “We wanted to preserve the state it was in and keep the history of it.”
The art-deco design was prevalent in that 1930’s time period, Anderson said. The font and the script provide an excellent way of dating historical signs.
The drug store had been owned by J.W. Shanks before being sold to Sward-Kemp in 1935, Sandbo said. Sward-Kemp’s neon sign joined with others of a similar type, like ones on the Boston Hotel and James’ Brothers Hardware, to “really light up the city.”
“This town really was something, for its time, with innovative businesses,” Anderson said. “Neon (signs) like this were relatively new to rural America” in the 1930s.
The sign will be on display during Railroad Days this year, as will a collection of artifacts currently encased right under the sign. These pieces from the drug store include everything from counter weights and a massive scale, to beakers and mortars and pestles, to pill boxes and medication bottles.
The restoration process of the Sward-Kemp sign motivated Bob Wenisch, one of the drug store’s owners, to rummage through his garage for Sward-Kemp materials, Sandbo said. He then donated them to the historical society.
Through the work of Sandbo and others at the historical society, as well as Wenisch’s donations, it’s clear Sward-Kemp was more than just a drug store, she said. The soda fountain made it a popular hang-out spot for youth, the store sold wallpaper and paint, and citizens could even pay their telephone bills at Sward-Kemp.
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan