Stop, look and selfie

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It’s kinda like Berryville’s “Back to the Future.” Until a few months ago, fading ghosts of classic advertisements were barely visible on the old brick buildings downtown. If you looked closely, the flaking exterior brick walls might have hearkened back to simpler days of drug store soda fountains and 5-cent general goods for sale, but they weren’t the type of things to stop visitors in their tracks.

Not so, anymore. The downtown square now looks both new and old at once.

Project coordinator Mary Nell Billings said that when we think of the past, we often think of black-and-white stills. A recently formed group called Berryville Community Restoration thought beyond reminiscence, finding a creative way to bring their town square’s history into vivid, living color.

The “new old” signs in downtown Berryville pop with crisp colors. More and more often, residents and passersthrough see the signage, stop, get out of their cars, and wander through the square taking pictures and selfies.

The signs are big, bright and beautiful.

Billings has lived most of her life in Berryville. A seamstress specializing in vintage clothes, she also has a love of historic preservation and urban renewal projects. Billings calls herself a “recycler.”

“I love seeing the old buildings repurposed and made beautiful and serviceable again,” she said. “Historic downtowns are the heart of towns; a major part of what gives that town character.”

Fostering local pride and nostalgia is part of the purpose of Berryville Organic News, a growing Facebook group (now 2,300+ members) that preceded the signs project, but was where the project was conceived. The group’s official description reads, “Anything Berryville. We tell good stories.”

After sharing historic photos of the square in the Facebook group, the members began discussing how nice it would be to restore some of those signs. The idea caught fire, and transformed into a collaborative community fundraising effort to refresh downtown’s inherent charm. From idle Facebook chatter emerged an organic, citizenled, citywide effort to give the square a vintage makeover.

The group researched the old signs to recreate them, and others of a similar time and style. They held fundraisers for the project. Many community members and businesses donated materials such as mortar, scaffolding and painting supplies.

Perhaps most importantly they found the two men who would bring these ideas to life, sign painter James Abbot and artist Randy Rust. Billings said “The Walldogs,” as they are affectionately called, have been a phenomenal team who take great pride in the work. “The pairing of these two has been magic,” she said.

The first sign the group undertook was restoration of a faded Coca-Cola mural featuring the company’s signature silhouette girl. Billings said that sign instantly became a popular spot for photos, including the local high school students’ senior pictures.

A second old Coca-Cola sign was only partially visible on an old building. They researched and found a complete picture of the advertisement that the artists could replicate.

The RCA Victrola sign was next. It wasn’t original to the town, but was of the same era, and has been one of the most photographed spots on the square.

The latest mural is a vintage Big Smith ad featuring a bucking bronco on what used to be a dry goods building. This western-themed piece ties into another feature on the Berryville Square — the Saunders Gun Museum, an attraction donated to the city by former Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show sharpshooter Burton Saunders.

Collateral progress

The Berryville sign project also propelled interest in further restorations and renovations on the square.

Most visibly renewed so far is the Main Theater, an “old-time” movie theater dating back at least seven decades. Prompted by the sign project, Rick Barrows, a Berryville native who now leads Multi-Craft Contractors, Inc., started restoring the cinema.

“We’re one of the few small towns that still has its original movie theater in operation. Now it’s getting an update,” Billings said.

Barrows and Berryville Community Restoration collaborated on major renovations, including painting, installing a digital projector, and replacing the seats. The old neon sign reading, “Main,” was restored and charged with new life. The sign, with its modern LED display, lights up its corner as it did in the 1950s.

The project is far from finished, which Billings says is how it should be, saying the group has discussed starting murals depicting Berryville’s history.

“Art inspires. I like to think we are going about restoration and revival in a unique and wonderful way by involving the citizens of town so collectively we will all have a part in it,” Billings said.

“We’re hoping this progress would inspire some of the other small towns to see what kind of projects they could do with their old downtowns,” she added. “People get stuck on the old, but this is a way of preserving what’s worth preserving and bringing it into the future. That’s pretty neat.”

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