Atop the Finger Lakes

In the last post, I stated without reservation that Skaneateles, New York, for my money, is the best small town in the United States, and even taunted Lititz, Pennsylvania in the process. In fact, I even had to tone down my taunting in the final draft of that post. As for the positive aspects of Skaneateles, one that cannot be ignored is its proximity to the other Finger Lakes. This trip is worth the price of admission by itself. U.S. 20 is the main thoroughfare here, and it was the main artery through the central part of New York prior to the New York Thruway, so there are many relics to be found along it.

Just five miles down the road is the city of Auburn. Like most places in upstate New York, it has undergone its share of hardships and loss of industry, but it does have my favorite overall sign-spotting location, the Hunter Dinerant, which has a ghost sign behind it and the Genesee Beer sign in the close distance. This is my shot from last October:


During this shoot, which coincided with an engagement photo shoot I had with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law-to-be, we spotted a sign on the way out of town that I had not seen in any of my research, right on the corner of US 20. Curley’s Pizzeria has been on the corner of State Street and NY5/US20 since 1933 (as the painting on the brick side proudly states. We had planned to go to Seneca Lake to get some more pictures of the happy couple, so I took a few distant shots with my phone that were too blown out to post to Instagram, but good enough to be a mental note. I would return.

And so, in April, I did. And got these:

curleys-wide curleys

A good start to the day, but hardly the last roadside attraction along US 20. The sections between the lakes are decidedly rural, with extremely gentle hills and farmland, but past Auburn is one my favorite sights along any road: a drive-in movie theater. New York has very few left, but the Fingerlakes Drive-In still stands. It was still closed for the season in April, but they left us something behind to remind us of summer and a bygone era:


We seem to have good luck finding old Dodges. See my diner page for a good one outside the Red Robin in Johnson City.


It had been a hard winter…

We kept along US 20, past Seneca Falls and on our way to Geneva, where we’d eventually make the turn down to Penn Yan and Keuka Lake. “There’s something else here,” I said.

“What is?” Laura asked.

“Don’t remember,” I replied. “Something we passed in October.” I had made a mental note but I had forgotten to pass it to myself after gym class. But I knew there was…something.

And then, there it was. In fact, it was two things. I pulled off the road to the right to make life simpler for the crowd of cars behind me and got out. An old motel, and an old motel sign, barely readable from the wear, ugly/beautiful:


But this wasn’t what I had spotted. Across the road was a Drive-In restaurant, with a long, tall sign that I think I had put aside because I knew its dimensions would be difficult to capture:


But the prize was the building itself, a living testament to good times before or after a trip to the lake. This is what summer is all about:


I don’t know about you, but I just look at these places and whatever cares and worries I may be pulling along behind me just drop off, and I feel like a kid again.

There was more to come this day: some of the greatest combinations of good and bad I’ve ever seen. More in the next post!

New York State of Mind

Not the most original title, huh? But this is the song I would play every time I came home from college: I had the exact moment timed on my audio cassette version of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits so “New York State of Mind” would play as soon as I crossed the border. That kind of stupidity takes dedication.


Although most of what you see on this site takes place in Pennsylvania, the more you read the more you will see that my heart belongs in Upstate New York. Both me and my wife were born there, my parents still live there, and any time we talk about getting away from it all, it always ends up with us going Upstate, whether it be to the Finger Lakes or Cooperstown or the dear old hometown of Binghamton. So I guess it comes as no surprise that we’ve spent our last two anniversaries in Skaneateles, a town which defines idyllic.

Every year, Lititz, PA gets named one of (if not the) coolest small town in America. I’ve been to Lititz. Nah. Give me Skaneateles any old day.


But do you have a lake, Lititz? Thought not.

But I kid the Lititz.

Now you’ll be amazed to know that Skaneateles has precisely zero vintage or neon signs, but despite this tremendous flaw, I would live there happily and perhaps skip for joy on occasions when I thought people weren’t looking. However, there are still good signs about within easy driving distance, including my favorite sign location in the state.

On the way up, we slid through Cortland. Cortland is one of these places that has some great history, as it was home to Smith-Corona and quite a bit of industry, but the last 30 years have been pretty lean. One thing I’ve noticed about the signs in towns like Cortland: either all the old signs come down, or businesses hang on to their signs for dear life. Fortunately, Cortland seems to fall in the latter category.

skyliner motel-cortland

The Cortland Motel and the Skyliner are off the McGraw exit of I-81. The Skyliner, alas, is no more, but the sign is still up, and points to a vacant lot. The Motel sign was kind of an afterthought. We pulled in and I took a couple of shots from the car, but this turned out to be one of the better finds.

To be quite honest, we were lost. Quite frankly, it’s easy to do in downtown Cortland. They basically toss you on to one way streets until you find yourself in Homer, or Dryden, or Groton. But as I righted the ship and turned back toward the center of town, I found the Melody Land:


This place dates back to before the 40s, is only open Wednesday to Saturday during dinner hours, and is family-owned. According to all accounts, you must get reservations to get in. It was a pity: we got there a good six hours too early…

A few one-way streets later and I was speeding toward Homer (which in this case, was the direction I had hoped) because I remembered a sign along the way that I had missed the previous year. If you take shots of signs as I do, you’ll know this feeling: you spot the sign right at the moment where it would be dangerous to pull over, so you continue on in hopes that you’ll be back again. Even though I had fallen into this trap, I was rewarded:


It was just after noon, and midway through my indulgence the neon of the sign suddenly came alive. I hadn’t gone in and asked. It made me smile.


The fact of the matter was, when I went inside afterward, the woman working there had no idea I was there. Apparently, they have the sign turned on all the time, and she had just forgotten when she had come in. But we had a great talk and gave me the owner’s card. When I got back in the car, I was just so thankful that someone recognized the underlying thing of what I do with these shots: the preservation and appreciation of these great pieces of history.

But not everybody sees it this way. More later…

Nick’s Diner

IMG_0847One of the most interesting aspects of what I do here is the reactions I get. I’ll be covering this in greater detail in some future posts, but I just wanted to say how happy I was to receive word from the owner of one local business who appreciated a contribution I made to Instagram. One of my favorite signs belongs to Nick’s Diner on Tilghman Street in Allentown, so much my favorite that I think I’ve posted four shots of this sign alone. Giannis Nikoladis, whose family owns Nick’s, recently commented on a ghostly black and white I took: “Very nice picture…You did a beautiful job and thanks again for the picture”.

It’s the first time I’ve gotten a thank you from a business owner. When I got that a couple weeks ago, I was just over the moon. Thanks so much, Giannis, and here’s one of the first pictures I took at Nick’s in the summer of 2009, at “neon magic hour.”


I’ve also gotten together some diner shots and explain my love-hate relationship with diners in general on my newly-created diner page. And if you know of any good ones I’m leaving out, please let me know!

Sign Picking in Adamstown

Adamstown, PA is known as the Antique Capital of Pennsylvania, boasting such massive outlets as Shupp’s Grove, Renninger’s, Green Dragon, The Mad Hatter, and a number of others to warm the heart of any seeker of vintage stuff out there. It had been a while since I had been down there, and my memory was fuzzy as to the selection of vintage signs I might troll through. My guess was none at all.


I was wrong…

It may seem strange to you, but I am not a fan of Lancaster County. There are a number of reasons why, but let’s just start with the elephant in the room, shall we? Lancaster County has been relatively disappointing in the sign department. Lancaster proper has squat. I’ve literally found nothing within the contents of that great city to make me want to slow my car down, much less stop and snap off a few shots.

Perhaps what soured me to Lancaster was this: I once drove out to the far reaches of Gap, PA to a place called the Bullfrog Inn. I did my research and saw several instances of their sign, which had a freaking neon bullfrog on it. I was salivating. Little did I know that before I could get there, the owners pulled it and replaced it with a red box sign with plain white lettering, and no hint of a bullfrog on it at all. I said words of languages strange and foreign, shook the dust off my feet, and continued on.

I will also talk of a beautiful neon sign along PA 272 that I missed out on a few years ago because I didn’t have my camera with me. The Pennsylvania Dutch Motel in Denver. It had a PA Dutch motif, which is rare in neon, and it was gorgeous. Removed. Thanks, guys. To see this sign, check out Ron Saari’s shot of this.

So with that in mind, I have my camera stored in the back and my wife and I are driving down 272, having sampled Shupp’s Grove. It’s a bit early in the season and it was relatively quiet, so we had moved on. We went to Renninger’s next, which is a fascinating building that makes you feel like you’re tunneling through catacombs of collectibles. I bought a Dizzy Gillespie record for a decent price. On our way out of there, we see the Penn Amish Motel off to our right. Not a bad sign, but generally plain. I glanced back and I thought I saw something, up above the motel, but at this point we’ve already gone past. I make a mental note.

“Oh, look,” my wife says. This is nearly always a good thing. She’s been my faithful spotter for a few years now, and among others, she found The Blue Comet Diner in Hazleton for me, which makes me love her all the more.

I see what she means. We’re passing the Pennsylvania Dutch Motel. The sign out front, the one that replaced the beautiful neon PA Dutch classic, is plastic, black and white, small, easy to miss, and most likely attracts approximately zero customers per year, but above, where the motel is, there’s a set of poles and what looks like the back of a sign. My eyes get wide, and a voice in my head whispers They didn’t get rid of all the neon. It doesn’t seem to be pointing at anything in particular: it’s just facing a collection of trees.

It’s like we’re whale-watching and we just saw a fin flop out of the water. My heart pounds. First chance to turn left and I take it. It was the turn-off for the Pepperidge Farm factory store, and it was quiet that afternoon. I roll along slowly, watching the tree line for some glimpse of something, anything, and then it appears, magically. Penna Dutch Motel, it reads, rusty and disused.

I mention something about clambering through the weeds and brush and she mentions poison ivy and the discussion dies down. Only one option: go up to the motel itself. Probably good policy, I think. I feel like I’ve been borderline trespassing at some of these locations, so it’s best to let people know who I am and what I’m doing. I drive up to the office and walk in. The proprietor steps out of the shadows. He’s an Indian gentleman, fifty-plus I’m guessing, and he looks a little puzzled that someone might be coming to check in at 2 in the afternoon on a Sunday.

“I’m a photographer, and I take pictures of old signs,” I say to him, and I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t rehearsed it in my mind before I walked in. “I noticed the one out back and I was wondering if you’d mind me taking a few shots.”

He squints. He certainly knows what I said, but the concept of it is hazy. I can tell he’s wondering why anyone would want to take a picture of a nasty, rusty old sign. But he agrees, and off I go into the abyss. And here’s why I would want to take a picture of it:


Whereas honor is not completely satisfied, this will have to do.

So I’m feeling lucky. We get back in the car and head back to the Penn Amish. As I head up the driveway, I can see that my glimpse had paid off. Again I go into the office and again the proprietor comes out, this one female, and I’m not trying to make a point by saying this, but it was a fact: she happens to be Indian as well. I lay the cards on the table and she seems considerably more delighted by the prospect. Their neon sign, painted red, sits behind and to the side of the motel proper, and I snap off these:

penn-amish-wide penn-amish-tilt

All in all, this would be a good day, but we topped it off by going to a place that I’ve never been to because I always seem to show up in the off-season. Boehringer’s Ice Cream sits along 272 and has since 1938, and at 3 in the afternoon they were positively packed. I’m reasonably certain they’ve had their sign restored, too. Ice cream, vintage sign, been around since 1938, packed with people. If I didn’t stop, you would have had to check my pulse.


I felt lucky and started messing with the in-camera effects in my Pentax K-5…

We have a thick shake each. I chose Amaretto Almond and she chose her usual Coffee, and as we drove back home, we made yummy sounds for a full fifteen minutes, frightened by the prospect of how large we would make ourselves if we lived closer.

A good day. A good day.

Vanishing America

Far too often in what I do, I am reminded of how quickly something can change. I know I’ve said it often, but it remains true, that photography is about this very moment , that even though I can go to the same place and take the same picture, the weather will be different, the angle of the sun, and I am convinced that the mood I am in, whether I have exercised that day, and even what I had for breakfast will make a difference. And sometimes the subject will have changed, or disappeared entirely the next time.

I was going through Phillipsburg, New Jersey last spring. I discovered the Key City Diner a few weeks earlier and had gotten some shots of it, only the sun was not cooperating and somebody had parked a van right next to the sign. I figured a morning shot would be better, so before my morning appointment in Easton, I charged across the border on 78 and turned back up on to old US 22. I love the old US Highway system: some of the best secrets are hidden there.

I got stopped at pretty much every light, which, if I was normal, would annoy me, but since I constantly have my head on a swivel looking for signs, the red lights are always welcome. It was cloudy, but there was a promise of sun. And off to the side, I see a Drive-In Restaurant.


Originally called Tony’s when it opened in 1956, it was bought in the early 80s and renamed Sammy’s after the new owner, Sam Ayoub.


You can somehow tell when a place is enjoyed. I could see the kids in line in their little league uniforms and their parents sitting in these outdoor seats with their ice cream. I could also see the “For Sale” sign, and I was glad that I stopped to document the old place before it went away completely.

A few weeks ago I drove by and the Hershey’s Sign and the Sammy’s Drive-In sign were gone. I later read an article that Sammy’s signs and most everything inside was auctioned off in February of this year. I’d like to think someone will take it over and make it a local treasure once again, but…

There’s a grouping of signs that I’ve taken since 2009 that have already gone by the wayside. I’ve put them on a new page called Vanishing America.

Ghosts of Harrisburg

There are many things that make a great photograph. Composition, lighting, and my personal favorite from Ansel Adams: where to stand. Contrast is another factor, and by that I don’t necessarily mean something you can control in Photoshop. I recall watching a retrospective on Monty Python and hearing Terry Jones say something very interesting on the nature of comedy, how he harkened back to what Browning said that a contrast of ideas in poetry yielded a star, and in that same way, their contrasting ideas brought out a laugh. That’s always stayed with me, and I find it applicable in all sorts of ways.


Exhibit A:

I love ghost signs, and sometime soon I’ll create a page specifically dedicated to them. They are the ultimate endangered signs, fading slowly out of existence, and whereas they might still be around in ten years, some clumsy oaf might come along and paint the darn thing, or worse, tear the building down. Which has been known to happen. Anyway.
This shot is good and I was happy with it. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that this brick building is out in Lancaster County somewhere, nestled in between expansive fields, the nearest farmhouse just visible on the horizon. Perhaps not even in an area that idyllic and rural, perhaps in a proud old Pennsylvania town next to a feed mill.


Surprise! This place is smack dab in the middle of the Harrisburg metro area, right by the train tracks and Interstate 83. A few weeks ago I spotted this one sitting in the middle of the city and wondered if it had been dropped here by a passing tornado.

BONUS on this trip:

I continued down the street to New Cumberland that morning because I had been foraging for movie theater marquees and found this one was in my wheelhouse for that morning.


This is the West Shore Theater, built in 1940, a true one-screen theater. Unlike most of its kind, this one looks seems to be prosperous. How could you not want to stop in and catch Silver Linings Playbook when you see “West Shore” in grand letters above it?