Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Clever highway signs helped pass the miles

We were planning to have a restaurant meal while pedaling our bikes across beautiful Newfoundland, but a highway marker warned, "No services for the next 63 miles!" It was August 1974, and my husband and I were bicycling the 500 miles from Corner Brook to St. Johns. The proprietor at the last gas station sold one kind of food: lots of country ham on thick slices of homemade bread. We bought four of her huge sandwiches and spread on mustard from the open jar on the counter. While we selected candy bars, the woman filled a gallon plastic jug with water for us; we hadn’t even realized we’d need that! She had done that for a young couple on bicycles who stopped earlier that day.

The newest segment of Canada’s Highway 1 had no mileage markers, no billboards, no barns, animals or fences. We saw almost no wide flat places to pitch our tent. In late afternoon, two young cyclists, camping under a bridge, invited us to pitch our tent near them, but Chub wanted to ride on. Luckily, we found an old rock quarry and spread the tent out on corrugated cardboard that had been discarded there. Supper and breakfast were alike: ham sandwiches. The sun came up as we attached our saddlebags and started into unknown miles ahead. Chub was anxious for his coffee! "Row, row, row your boat," I sang as we struggled up hills.

Drivers of lumber trucks and two Canadian Mounties waved and honked happily each time they passed. Several miles into the day’s ride, we spied a fence. Civilization! Hanging on that fence was a small metal sign with this welcome message: "Services Ahead." Beautiful! We were there. In the restaurant, the two Mounties came to our table and said, "We can’t stand it any longer - how old are you two, anyhow?" We were 60 and 64. Two truck drivers joined them. We felt they were protecting us throughout the rest of the trip. What’s more, we decided that highway signs are just great!

In the 1930s, certain advertising signs on public roads were welcomed - even loved! Signs that advertised shaving cream were clever rhymes, and almost everybody read them, memorized them and quoted new ones to friends or strangers. The messages were spread out on five or six separate signs to match a legal, safe driving speed. I still recall my favorite set: "Substitutes would irk a saint, you think they are, what you know they ain’t. Burma Shave." These wholesome, happy roadside jingles entertained drivers and kept sleepy ones awake. They finally could be seen in almost very state. People made up their own jingles, and the company bought some of them for $100 each. They rejected even slightly offensive messages. According to writer Bob Loeffelbein, the first Burma Shave signs appeared in 1926 on Highway 65 near Lakeville, Minn. It said simply, "Cheer up ... Face! ... The War ... Is over ... Burma Shave." That would have attracted drivers of a Model T, but when speed limits were over 50 miles per hour, signs were spaced farther apart.

One set of six signs advertised: "Riot at ... the drug store ... calling all cars ... 100 customers ... only 99 jars ... of Burma Shave." A set of five advised: "If harmony ... Is what you ... Crave ... Then get a tuba ... Burma Shave." The company replaced the signs with new jingles about once a year. I liked this subtle suggestion: "Passing school houses? ... Take it slow ... Let the little ... Shavers ... Grow ... Burma Shave."

As with the "Services Ahead" in Newfoundland, Chub and I always read clever highway signs.

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