Century old lettering discovered on building a 'hidden treasure'

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) History needs nothing more than a crack in the plaster to slip out like a ghost.

That's how it happened on A Street in downtown Idaho Falls. Winter ice dislodged a chunk of stucco from the east side of the Great Harvest Bread Co. building. Spring wind pulled back the stucco and plaster, revealing brick and several feet of heavy block lettering at least a century old.

Great Harvest owner John VanOrman saw the antique letters and wanted to keep peeling.

"It's like a little hidden treasure," VanOrman said. "You see a little piece of it and you keep digging, finding more."

Painted walls of the vintage are called "ghost signs." They were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s when painters or "wall dogs" plastered buildings with business names and ad art.

Circumstance preserved the lingering ghost signs.

VanOrman did some sleuthing since the wind unearthed his ghost sign three weeks ago. The sign reads "IDAHO FALLS DEVELOPMENT CO. LTD." VanOrman's chain of title records show the business owned the building from 1907 to 1912.

The sign presumably was painted in that five-year window. VanOrman looked up city maps showing the Gayety Theatre was built next door inches away, if not touching between 1911 and 1921.

The building containing the movie theater and businesses that followed was torn down in the '80s to make room for a bank parking lot. That building, however, acted as a buffer that protected the now 100-year-old sign.

"Really, that sign hasn't seen the light of day for 80 years," VanOrman said.

The sign became the city's history project. The crew from All American Cleaning and Restoration carefully chipped away at the layer of plaster like archeologists on a dig as passers-by stopped to puzzle briefly on the sidewalk.

Crewman Steve Wright said he and the other workers were told to take extra care not to ding the lettering. That meant gentler work and a longer process.

"We'd probably be chiseling it," Wright said through a white ventilation mask. "It's a new experience compared to what we normally do."

Across the street, Robert Fischer stepped out of his barber shop to smoke a cigarette and watch the progress. Fischer owns Robert's Deluxe Cuts.

"When it first came off, I could read 'FARMLAND AND CITY PRO...'" Fischer said. "I was curious what else was under it. I like history, personally. That's why all of my stuff looks old and broke down."

The sign brought out the typography geek in Ron Dye, who works a block and a half away as a graphic artist at Idaho Falls Magazine.

The ampersands, or "&" figures, are an unusual combination of "8s" and "c's," Dye said. The "L'' in "Ltd." underlines the rest of the word and the letters in "CO." are fixed inside one another, probably to save space, he said.

"Styles come and go," Dye said. "It's just nice to see something that's basically a time capsule that hasn't been looked at for a long, long time.

"Design and art and fashion and everything like that come back around."

People have stopped by Great Harvest to give VanOrman old photos of the building or tell stories about working downtown 50 years ago. He's compiled their gifts with the records he's dug up into a black binder. He hopes to fill it with more clues and details more ghosts.

"Here's this thing that's kind of rare and unique and has reference to Idaho Falls history," VanOrman said. "You kind of have an obligation to do something with it and not just throw stucco back over the top."


Information from: Post Register