A longtime fixture of downtown Helena is slated for a facelift, helping it continue to evoke memories of one of the most iconic businesses in the city’s history.
The faded old sign for Eddy’s bread on the north face of the Iron Front Hotel on Last Chance Gulch hasn’t been touched up in about half a century, with the Helena-based baking empire sold long ago to a national concern.
But Kevin Keeler, a friend of the descendants of Eddy’s founder Eddy O’Connell, has helped bring in a national leader in historic “ghost sign” renovation and gained at least the tentative blessing of the city, aiming to beautify a key entrance to downtown while honoring an institution that touched numerous lives in the area.
“I let them know what this project isn’t,” he said of a recent meeting with city staff and others. “This isn’t a simple repainting, with a brand-new, like-new sign.”
Keeler hopes a crew of artists will be here Sept. 14-17 for the project.
He also hopes the venture will foster community discussion on ghost signs — the long-abandoned ads on walls and barns that for much of the first half of the 20th century pitched bread, tobacco and numerous other products.
“Do you let them fade away?” he asked. “When do you decide to restore a sign? That’s the $64,000 question.”
Nancy Bennett, a leader of the Walldogs, a loosely knit Iowa-based group that restores ghost signs, was in town to survey the aesthetic, cultural and historical context of the sign and come up with a vision.
“It won’t look like a new advertisement,” she said. “However, it will go beyond just preserving it as-is.”
“We still want to keep the idea that this is a ghost sign,” Keeler said.
He said the owner of the building (in investment group with a local property manager) is on board with the project. The O’Connell family itself is providing the funding.
Eddy O’Connell and his brother sold bread at 3 cents a loaf in the early 20th century, building a hotel and café into a regional empire.
O’Connell became one of the more significant people in Helena’s history, closely engaged in the development of the city and of Carroll College.
“Eddy created this business with hard work and toil and savings,” Keeler said. “He took risks.”
He also believed in the effectiveness of advising through signs and murals and commissioned many throughout the Northwest.
But as radio and television advertising grew, the value in the old signs faded as well. Most eventually faded beyond recognition, were painted over or disappeared when buildings were destroyed or renovated.
Bennett said the Walldogs get their name from an old colloquialism for the traveling workers, often employed by the companies they were pitching. They painted the signs across wide regions, on the road for months at a time, often at great heights, in poor weather and with substandard equipment.
The group pushing for the restoration met with city staff to discuss things like the blockage of sidewalks and traffic on the gulch. Senior Planner Kathy Macefield said no major obstacles have appeared in front of the project.
In fact, she said the city zoning ordinance specifically recognizes ghost signs as a piece of history and allows them to be preserved and repainted. Otherwise, as signs for businesses that may no longer exist, the ordinance would generally call for their removal.
Keeler said this isn’t the first downtown example of preserving an old sign. The “Union Market” sign on the side of the Pita Pit at the corner of Sixth and Jackson Streets, for example, also underwent some touch-up during a renovation, he said, and now stands as an homage to the former function of that building.
He said the Iron Front project could become a model for other communities on how to make the most of ghost signs.
Titan Rental has donated the use of a lift for the painting project, and the Barrister Bed and Breakfast has donated lodging for two of the artists during their stay, Keeler said. The group still seeks lodging for two more artists.
Bennett plans to return for the painting and is now armed with extensive knowledge of the Eddy’s legacy. While she was on Last Chance Gulch carefully photographing the sign, passersby stopped to talk about it.
“That says a lot about your community, that the community does have a lot of pride in its history and its downtown area,” she said. “I was impressed by that.”