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Over the past year or so my visits with you ceased because I had not been traveling much and felt there was little of note that needed to be shared.

Now that we are all staying at home there is a greater need than before to stay connected and keep our minds busy and our spirits up.

As many of you are aware, Dale and I are extremely passionate about the preservation of our historic downtown. As part of that passion I began research a number of years ago on some of the buildings and their original owners.

It was amazing how many of the names that emerged were those of either people we have known during our 50-plus years here in La Grande or some of their relatives. Those people I learned were tough and strong and worked together to build community and to keep it going.

Recently I put together a collection of stories about a special part of that community and a need for preservation that I want to share with you over the coming months.

Scattered throughout La Grande, primarily in the historic district, there are hidden scattered gems of yesterday looking down on the unaware passersby ready to share some of the rich history of La Grande’s early occupants. These painted advertisements, also known as “ghost signs,” are for products and services important to the local citizenry during a specific era. Like the historic old buildings on which they are found they give us a small glimpse of what life was like in the early part of the 20th century.

Around the end of the 19th century a new type of advertising swept across the country — including large cities as well as the smaller rural towns. It was the thing to do and La Grande was not to be left out. There were no rules or regulations at that time regarding signage. For those who owned their own building it was certainly something to consider.

La Grande has two types of ghost signs — those for nationally known products and those for local businesses. So who paid for these signs? For the locally owned businesses, the advertisement was generally paid for by the owner of the business. For larger companies that were reaching out to all areas to make their products known, there was what were called “privilege signs.”

Sometimes money changed hands for these, though very rarely and not very much. Mostly the building owner was offered something such as having the business name somewhere included in the sign or a service of having the building roof inspected (handy for the taller buildings), or some object or product.

The men who painted these signs were not considered artists or even the best sign-painters but they were extremely talented and daring as they engaged in a very dangerous trade. In the larger cities there were local painters while in the rural areas there were traveling sign painters who went from small town to small town working farms (barns and silos) along the way. Wherever they were, they were referred to as “walldogs.” This was for two reasons. They worked like dogs while working up and down on tall buildings and they were tethered/leashed to the wall.

Although many were skilled both in their artistic work and climbing abilities, they were often poorly paid.

If that was not bad enough, their exposure to the toxic combinations of ingredients, including lead, creating the paints they used made their job even more dangerous health wise. However, it was because of the adhesive durability of these paints that we are still able to see and appreciate the efforts of their work today.

I previously closed my articles with “Enjoy!” I still feel that it is important to try to find something each day to bring joy into our own life as well as those around us. So until next time keep tough, strong and healthy — and Enjoy!

About the Author

Ginny Mammen has lived in La Grande for more than 50 years and enjoys sharing her interest in the history of people, places and buildings.

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