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Dec 21, 2018

Since the 1930s, this billboard on US 40 has been touting Clabber Girl Baking Powder and welcoming visitors to Terre Haute. It's one of the iconic Indiana road signs that are the focus of this week's show.

Steve Brady(December 8, 2018) For 60 years in Indianapolis, a signboard has been showcasing weekly puns and wordplay submitted by the general public and employees of OneAmerica, formerly American United Life Insurance (AUL). A pun on the marquee of the signboard at the 38-story One America Tower in downtown Indy during Halloween season: "Swiss and Gouda screamed when they saw the Muenster."

Since the 1930s, a billboard on US 40 as motorists approach Terre Haute has been touting Clabber Girl Baking Powder and welcoming visitors to the city, which, the sign notes, lies five minutes ahead. The billboard - among the oldest in Indiana - is temporarily down for restoration work by Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, which has purchased the sign and surrounding property from the Hulman family of Terre Haute. Founded in 1899 by the family of Terre Haute business and civic leader Tony Hulman, Clabber Girl Corp. erected roadside billboards during the 1930s to help make the brand a household name.

Lou Ann BakerThe OneAmerica/AUL signboard, which announced its first message in 1958, and the Clabber Girl billboard are among iconic signs across Indiana that Hoosier History Live explores during this show. Nelson's studio guests are:

  • Lou Ann Baker, public relations director for OneAmerica, the life insurance, retirement and employee benefits company. It has received more than 10,000 suggestions during 60 years of signboard puns and wordplay; those that make it to the signboard range from humorous and witty to downright groan-worthy. Another example: "I'd rather check my Facebook than face my checkbook."
  • And Steve Brady, vice president of advancement at Rose-Hulman. Rose-Hulman has hired a Terre Haute-based artist to restore the Clabber Girl billboard, which is 44 feet long and features a large electric clock. According to Rose-Hulman officials, the vintage sign was one of the first electric billboards in the country.

An old photo of the AUL sign provides a witty example of the wordplay that the company (now OneAmerica) has been displaying for 60 years.In addition to the studio guests, our show features phone-in reports about other iconic signs in Indiana. They include a sign in the Clinton Countytown of Colfax that promoted a bygone restaurant famous for its fried catfish. Although Miller's Restaurant - which drew patrons from across the state - closed more than 18 years ago, its promotional sign remains as a Colfax landmark.

The signboard tradition at then-AUL began when the company was headquartered in a building on Fall Creek Parkway on the near-northside of Indy. According to the company, the first signboard apologized to motorists for inconveniences caused by construction of the headquarters building. An early signboard pun dealt with safe driving: "Avoid that rundown feeling - Obey stop signs."

During the subsequent 60 years, some of the signboard's messages have been era-specific. "If you eat like a piggy - You won't be a Twiggy" was a message on the signboard during the 1960s, when English fashion model Twiggy, known for her slender shape, was a household name.

A recent posting on the OneAmerica signboard.Other messages have been evergreen. "Give dandelions an inch - and they'll take a yard" and "Ideas are like children - your own are wonderful" were posted by then-AUL during the 1960s, but they could be on the OneAmerica signboard today with no update, tweak or historic context needed.

To share details about the sign in Colfax still touting the long-closed catfish restaurant, correspondent Phil Brooks, a Hoosier History Live listener based in Brownsburg, calls in during the show to explain who has been paying the electric bill all of these years for the illuminated sign. He also reports on other landmark signs across the state.

For the Clabber Girl billboard, which had deteriorated, Rose-Hulman has hired an artist from the Terre Haute area to do the painting portion of the restoration work. The project also involves improving the billboard's wooden frame, the mechanics of the clock and other features. Rose-Hulman took ownership of the historic sign and surrounding property as part of the purchase in 2017 of more than 1,100 acres from the Hulmans.

During our show, listeners are invited to call in and describe their favorite iconic signs across Indiana. The WICR-FM studio's phone number is 317-788-3314.