Old Car City takes in historic motel signage

Bartow landmark has new home

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When the interstate highways began crisscrossing the state in the 1960s, the little mom and pop motels soon lost out to the Holiday Inns, the Howard Johnsons and the Best Westerns and, with them, went the roadside signs advertising them. 

Such was the case of the Bartow Motel, built in the 1950s along then busy U.S. Highway 41 — now Joe Frank Harris Parkway — and demolished in February. 

But the sign, a classic example of sign painting at its best, still stood, forlornly overlooking an empty space where the motel once was.

Dean Lewis was driving down JFH one afternoon when he spotted the sign just standing there all by itself. The self-proclaimed junk yard owner knew right then that he had to have it.

"I had been driving down that road for years and each time I would think, 'What if I had that sign in my junkyard?'" Lewis said. 

That's right, he said junkyard as in Old Car City in White, a business he happens to own. 

Except he no longer sells junk, he displays it.

"I found out a few years back, that you could make more money if you charged people to come in with their cameras and take photos," he said. "People come from all over the world to take photographs of rusting cars."

And Old Car City was the perfect place to display such a sign, he thought.

After several months of inquiries, the sign's owner relented and offered to sell it to him.

Lewis won't disclose the price.

With a handful of helpers armed with blowtorches, they carefully cut the sign from its metal legs and, using a boom truck, gingerly lowered it onto a flatbed truck for the trip to White.

"We had to be very careful," Lewis recalled. "Over the years, things were added to the sign that weakened it and caused it to bend. Even one misstep could have caused it to fold, or worse, tear apart. That sign is a landmark like Ross's and the 4-Way diner or Gilreath's Hardware, so we had to be very careful."

The sign's final resting place, at least for now, is leaning against a tree in the back of Old Car City. Two guards made out of old paint cans stand sentry on either side. 

"It looks more like it's in a junkyard this way," Lewis said. "At first I thought about doing something else with it, but my junkyard is my showplace and this sign is my showpiece. I would like to find more of them and create a 'Sign Avenue.'"