Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Old Wooden Sign is Seen Again

When John C. Smith placed the winning bid of $575 to purchase the first lot in the new town of Merced on Feb. 8, 1872, he knew this prime location on Front Street (16th Street) near the Central Pacific Railroad depot would be a good investment. The building he erected in 1873 did not escape the fate of the wrecking ball, but a piece of its history has survived and been put on display in the Courthouse Museum. It is a 7-foot-by-3-foot wooden sign that may have once hung in John C. Smith’s Cosmopolitan Restaurant. Thanks to the generosity of Grey Roberts, this treasure is the newest addition to the Mercantile Room exhibit at the Museum.

On this framed billboard which looks almost like a plank door, there are seven businesses listed in descending order: Elgin Lewis’ Carriage Works, E. M. Stoddard & Son’s Stable, Simonson and Harrell’s Title Research and Real Estate Insurance, R. Kaehler’s Wholesale Liquor, D. F. Griffin’s Plumbing and Tinning, Golden West Clothing House, and Leggett’s Jewelry. Both the calligraphy and the design of the ads are simple yet elegant, and the content is informational but not overwhelming.

The sign’s colors appear to be black, white, blue, red, and gold. While the style of calligraphy and design and the use of color look unique, they are all the work of one person, Frederick W. Read. Barely visible on the bottom frame is the marking of the creator of this sign – “F. W. Read, Sign and Advertising.” So, what is the story behind this sign? When was it made? And where was it originally displayed?

It is very difficult to get the real story behind the sign since no photos or documentation of it have been found, but researching business listing information is definitely a good start.

Elgin Lewis listed his blacksmith shop on the corner of Huffman Avenue (M Street) and Main Street. However, it is commonly known that Lewis erected his building on Main Street between J and K Streets in 1885. Further research shows that during the Panic of 1893, he lost his building to the Merced Security Savings Bank and moved his business to the southwest corner of Main Street and Huffman Avenue. So, this sign must have been made sometime after 1893 as it indicates the Huffman Avenue location.

Simonson and Harrell’s ad further narrows the time frame since the business was housed in the Merced Bank Building which became available after Merced Bank closed its doors in 1894. Simonson and Harrell was located at 509 Front Street between Canal and M Streets, and the telephone number was “Red 55.”

If 1894 is the earliest possible day that the sign was made, then what was the latest possible manufacturing day for the sign? Actually, the best clue is not among the advertised businesses, but the creator of the sign. Frederick W. Read must have painted this sign before he was elected Justice of the Peace for Township 2 in 1898. His business was listed on Front Street as early as 1893, but the listing disappeared after the election. He was no longer in Merced by 1900 according to the 1900 federal census.

Now we can safely put the time frame of this wooden sign between 1894 and 1898. Then, where was it placed? The fading gold paint just above Elgin Lewis’ ad shows “Cosmopolitan Café” which indicates the sign was made for the restaurant. During this time, there were two Cosmopolitan eateries in Merced: Cosmopolitan Hotel, which had a dining room, and Cosmopolitan Restaurant, which was part of John C. Smith’s Saloon operation. To add to the confusion of this matter, both businesses were on the same block and same side of Huffman Avenue: Cosmopolitan Hotel on one end by Main Street while Cosmopolitan Saloon on the other end by Front Street. In 1873, Smith erected a 2-story brick building on that first lot (the northeast corner of Front and Huffman) for his saloon and billiard room and added the single-story restaurant addition in rear of the building soon after.

So, which one housed the sign? These all came down to the display of a directional hand in “Leggett, The Leading Jeweler” ad on the sign. This directional hand points left to “Front Street” for Leggett’s jewelry store. In order to make that hand display work, the sign has to be placed on the east side of Huffman Avenue and face the street. Smith’s Cosmopolitan Restaurant at 512 Huffman Avenue fits perfectly. It would not make sense for the sign to have been on Main Street where the Cosmopolitan Hotel’s dining room was located because the directional hand would guide people to Huffman Avenue instead of Front Street.

This wooden sign was made sometime between 1894 and 1898 and placed most likely outside of the Cosmopolitan Restaurant. It was in use until the turn of the century because, by 1900, several businesses had either moved to new locations or received new phone numbers, and the outdated sign may have been put away and forgotten.

Please visit our Mercantile Room exhibit this weekend to see this century-old wooden sign. Don’t forget to look for the other wooden signs on display at the Museum, including the “Breckinridge & Peck Attorneys At Law” sign in the “Shaping Justice: A Century of Great Crimes in Merced County” exhibit.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at mercedmuseum@sbcglobal.net.

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