At a white concrete building on Old Highway 5 between Jasper and Nauvoo, the metal advertising signs speak a foreign language: the past.
His current sign collection wasn’t part of the original plan, says owner Terry Alexander; they just happened serendipitously along the way.
“It started when a friend told me he had an old Sinclair gasoline sign that I was welcome to. He said, ‘If I come by and you’re not at the shop, I’ll just throw the sign over the fence.’”
The large sign now adorns the porch’s left-hand wall, along with its archival brethren “Pure” and “Royal Crown Cola” and a refurbished John Deere tractor sits underneath.
Dozens of other pieces of early 20th century memorabilia line the interior shelves and rafters, from a large crosscut wood saw to a traffic light to a Zenith tube radio.
Alexander’s vision for the small shop took shape day by day during the 30-plus years he worked as an electrician in underground coal mines, he says: “It was hard work, and I was usually miserable doing it. What I dreamed about was someday having a little work space where I could come and go as I pleased, and not have to follow anybody’s schedule. So that’s what I’ve got.”
Alexander’s first job, he says, was what he was born to do: building houses.
Just as in the classic John Prine song, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” Terry began at the age of eight accompanying his grandfather to job sites on summer days.
“I was good at building, and I enjoyed every minute of it,” he recalls. If not for one thing, he’d have spent the next few decades of his life doing it.
In a word? “Insurance,” he says. “You just can’t make it without health insurance these days, especially when you’ve got a family.”
Coal mines needed electricians, and after graduating from Walker High he enrolled in one of the first electrical shop classes at Walker College, now Bevill State.
When he got his mining job, Alexander says, he tried to keep his retirement nest-egg goal in constant sight—working extra shifts when they were available, and investing in some land along the way for later homebuilding purposes.
Especially useful was a program the company called “Weekend Warriors,” in which miners volunteered to work extended hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for a full week’s pay.
Alexander signed up, which freed most of his time on weekdays. Ironically, he used some of those days to go back to his first love of building houses.
Now that he’s retired, the longest stretches of his time in the shop are spent on a newfound pursuit that’s probably too passionate to be considered a hobby: restoring classic cars.
His two most recent projects—one finished, one in the process—are both 1955 Chevrolet Bel Airs, the type of car Alexander’s grandfather drove.
Restoration is not a pastime for the faint-hearted, or the faint of pocketbook, he says: “It’s the kind of thing you have to love, or you couldn’t do it. Sometimes I’ll be heading home in the afternoon and realize I’ve spent the whole day just buffing a section of chrome. But that’s finished, and the next day will be something new. There’s a lot of satisfaction in the work.”
Evidence of that satisfaction is the ‘55 Chevy sitting out front, which Alexander is using for transportation to his nearby home on this particular day.
Apparently, car restoration devotees are very particular about retro parts being authentic, even down to the paint job.
To an untrained eye, the car looks to be two-tone red and white. But in truth, the color combo is a recreation of what the manufacturer intended: Gypsy Red on the bottom, Shoreline Beige on top.
The Gypsy Red Bel Air still bears an American flag on its antenna, which Alexander says he’s forgotten to remove after showing the car at the Veterans’ Day event on the Square.
His office desk in a front corner of the building has a section of photo albums, highlighting his travels to car shows and documenting old cars in various stages of repair.
The latter includes the companion Bel Air restoration now in-progress in his workshop.
The only apparent difference is the color: Glacier Blue on the body, Shoreline Beige up top.
But when Alexander raises the hood, the similarities end: the car’s vast engine compartment is only half-filled, by a sleek, horizontally based Corvette motor and a forest of chrome, down to the radiator frame and battery cover.
The engine’s running fine, he says, and he’s moved on to body work, replacing the entire pan under the front seats with the appropriate blue carpet, and refurbishing the trunk — whose original hinges now whisper like they’re new — to match.
He raises the car on his hydraulic lift, revealing a chrome muffler the size of a suitcase.
“I don’t keep track of how many hours I put into something like this,” Alexander comments as he lowers the lift. “I kept track of the expenses once, but that was a mistake.” He laughs.
Throughout the afternoon customers come and go. Occasionally he sells one of the antique tractors parked out front, or a piece of the memorabilia, but his collectible metal advertising signs are not for sale.
He keeps an eye out for the brands and designs he doesn’t have.
In fact, it’s the Pure and Sinclair and Royal Crown signs that tend to draw the most passersby.
Once they find out the signs are not for sale, they’re apt to stay for a while and talk about the “good old days” of the 1950s.
Alexander says he understands the emotional attraction to souvenirs of that time period, though it’s hard to put into words.
“Was it a better and happier time? I don’t know,” he says. “It sure wasn’t perfect. There were all kinds of problems, bad things going on. But at least the daily life was slower, not so rushed. You could get your mind around it, more.”
He reflects silently on this for a few seconds, and walks across the shop to the Bel Air with the Corvette motor to sit in the driver’s seat.
“Let’s just see,” he says. “Who knows, maybe it’ll fire right up.”
He turns the ignition. The motor fires right up.
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.