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Published: Sunday, 7/16/2006

From wacky to welcoming, area signs have tales to tell

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
AND VANESSA WINANS
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Besides being the hometown of figure skater Scott Hamilton, Bowling Green also promotes its annual tractor pulls. Besides being the hometown of figure skater Scott Hamilton, Bowling Green also promotes its annual tractor pulls.
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If a welcome sign is a visitor's first impression of a town, the folks in Delphos, Ohio, figure they might as well make it a good one.

"Welcome to Delphos, America's Friendliest City," greets visitors driving into the town situated on the Allen, Putnam, and Van Wert County lines. Seems like a pretty bold claim to make, but officials insist it's true.

"We make it a point to know people," said Greg Berquist, Delphos safety-service director. "It's a very nice community, a good family-based community, a good place to raise your kids."

Just inside the corporation limits of any number of small towns in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan are signs that greet, inform, amuse, and at times confuse.

The Wood County village of Wayne has gotten a good laugh over the years as people slow down to read a sign painted on the side of a former drugstore, "Welcome to Wayne, Ohio: Home of 941 nice people and one sorehead."

The original sorehead sign was put up in the 1950s about two miles west of town. It then read "760 nice people and one sorehead," but was later relocated downtown. These days, people compete for the annual sorehead title, an honor that's bestowed each summer during

Prairie Depot Days.

"It's just a fun thing is all it is, and it brings attention to the town," said Dave Heinze, whose automotive repair business is across the street from the welcome sign. "People have fun with it. We actually have a lot of people from out of town who stop and take a picture by it."

Visitors to Port Clinton know immediately that they are entering "The Walleye Capital of the World" - a name designated in 1980 by the late Ohio Gov. James Rhodes. The Lake Erie community hosts an annual walleye festival as well as a now-famous walleye drop on New Year's Eve.

Meanwhile, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, considered the bigger city's cheerleader-in-chief, conveys a more straightforward message above his name: "Welcome to Toledo, a community with pride."

A sign in Clyde, Ohio, proclaims the Sandusky County community "America's Famous Small Town" - a reference to author Sherwood Anderson's use of Clyde as the setting for his 1919 classic, Winesburg, Ohio.

"It's promoting 'Winesburg' the book," local historian Ralph Rogers explained. "A lot of people think Winesburg is down around Amish country because there is a Winesburg there, but the book was about Clyde."

Jeff Gordon, an associate professor of geography at Bowling Green State University, said whatever it is that "puts a town on the map" frequently shows up on its welcome sign. Sometimes that's more than one thing.

Motorists driving into Bowling Green on East Wooster Street are greeted by a series of welcome signs that let them know they're entering the hometown of Olympic figure-skating gold medalist Scott Hamilton, a number of championship high school athletic teams, the American Legion's Buckeye Boys State, and, of course, the National Tractor Pulling Championships.

"This is their claim to fame. This is what they identify with. This is what they're known for," Mr. Gordon said. "It becomes very critical for folks to have this identity. This is how they differentiate themselves."

For that very reason, some monikers can actually create confusion to nonlocals.

Motorists along I-75 can't help but notice the sign welcoming them to "Flag City USA" when they drive past Findlay. The city has had that title unofficially since 1968 and by congressional designation since 1974.

Findlay is not the birthplace of Betsy Ross or home to a flag manufacturing company.

The story goes that a local executive, upon moving to Findlay, decided he would like to see every household in the city fly an American flag so he got a number of businesses to support the idea. Some 14,000 small flags were delivered to homes by Scout organizations for Flag Day 1968, and the idea that Findlay was "Flag City USA" stuck.

Ten miles south of Findlay, the village of Arlington has no direct tie to the flag either, but it has called itself the Flag Village since 1992 when President George Bush swung through town on a whistle-stop tour. President Bill Clinton rode the rails through Arlington four years later.

"We put flags up from corporation limit to corporation limit and they were on every light pole, which is every 70 feet," Mayor Karl Best said.

In some towns, not even city officials are sure what the local greetings mean.

Drivers entering Hillsdale, Mich., see a sign reading, "Welcome to Hillsdale: It's the People." City Manager Tim Vagle confesses the message mystifies him.

"I think lots of folks have a number of different spins as to what it really means," he said, before putting the best possible interpretation on the slogan. "The strength of any community, of any organization, is its people."

The slogan's origins have blurred. Chamber of Commerce President Karri Doty said the sign maker found the people so friendly and helpful that he had to memorialize their character in a sign, a story Jerry Van Houtan of Alpha Signs confirmed.

"I came up with it myself," said Mr. Van Houtan, who moved to Hillsdale from Iowa. In working with the Hillsdale Garden Club to create a sign, "They mentioned about a slogan, and I said, I've seen a sign in Stuart, Iowa: 'Home of 1,100 good eggs and a few stinkers.'‚óŹ"

That made him think about what makes Hillsdale unique. "They have an auction every Saturday that's gone on 100 years. You see all kinds of people. What makes Hillsdale unique? It's the people."

And a sign was born. Not everyone understands it, though.

"It's taken a lot of jabs," said longtime Hillsdale Garden Club member Colleen Savarino.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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