Restored vintage building ad, Atlanta, Illinois on Route 66 (Scarborough photo)In small-town America, a big blank wall on the side of a building was an ideal spot to paint eye-catching advertisements.

Sign-makers could get pretty creative.

They used dramatic fonts and bright colors to draw the attention of both locals and busy travelers.

As the years passed, buildings changed hands and ads moved to billboards and neon. The artistic efforts faded and peeled.

Enter the Letterheads.

They are a worldwide group of graphics and sign enthusiasts, and I saw an example of their work on historic wall signage in Atlanta, Illinois, on historic Route 66.

Our discovery was pure traveler serendipity.

During a summer Midwest road trip from Texas to Chicago and back, my teen daughter and I tried to hit as many scenic drives and backroads as we could. Across Illinois, old Route 66 (Chicago IL to Santa Monica CA) roughly parallels Interstate 55 and is often only a stone’s throw from it. We could make good time on the big road but it was incredibly boring, so we often jumped off to Route 66 to slow down and look around.

Close up of JH Judy grocer’s sign, Atlanta IL (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

As we drove through the little town of Atlanta, I was struck by the bright colors of the “building ads” (downtown Atlanta itself is part of the National Scenic Byways program.)

When I got out to take a photo, I saw a plaque explaining that the Letterheads had been responsible for the sign’s preservation and restoration.

The group has sign-painting meetups around the globe. In 2004 they did some work in nearby Lincoln, Illinois; the two striking photos below are courtesy of that Letterhead project.

Letterhead project in progress, Lincoln IL (courtesy Letterville Web site)

Completed Letterhead sign in 2004, Lincoln IL (courtesy Letterville Web site)

Thanks very much, Letterheads, for helping to preserve a bit of graphics heritage, and for brightening the day of road-trippers everywhere.

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