Columbia Neon has been a big part of the landscape of this town since 1934. If you don't know that name, you know their signs: The Polk Motel, Puckett's, Columbia Plaza and Bucky's to name a few. For more than 83 years, they've designed, crafted and installed signs that have defined the cityscape of Columbia and more than 23 surrounding counties in Tennessee.
Roots in Tennessee
Columbia Neon's history begins with Patton Whittaker (craftsman) and O.G. Compton (artist) who ran the business behind the long gone Princess Theater (Where First TN bank is now) until it burned in 1949. Today, visitors to Columbia will notice the building located on North Garden Street (Hwy 31) before they pass over the Duck River bridge. While Columbia is their headquarters, before the interstate highways were built Neon had locations in many of the major cities in Tennessee.
Today, Mr. Charles Stofel is the current owner/operator who worked his way up to ownership after joining the spray department in 1960. For the last 57 years he's been a part of many lifecycles of signs in Columbia. Everything from installing signs to uninstalling them (when businesses close) to restoring them back to their former glory.
It Starts with a Bright Idea
The sign making process begins when a client contacts their design department to discuss an idea they have for their business. After a design is finalized, it goes up on a board to be completed. As it moves down the board, each component of the sign is hand-built with materials like vinyl printing and metal bending and neon or LED light insertion.
After the sign is built, it's ready for installation. Today, Columbia Neon installs and maintains signs and billboards in more than 23 counties in Tennessee.
In addition to designing, building, and restoring signs, the business also installs and maintains many signs in town even if they didn’t create them. They also have over 300 billboards in 23 counties that they are responsible for maintaining. They still design neon; however, due to costs, plastic and LED signs are now more popular.
Due to the shrinking number of neon sign makers in the area, Columbia Neon has received nationwide interest in their abilities to restore neon and enamel signs back to their original designs.
You can see some of that restoration work in properties like The Crockett Theater in Lawrenceburg, TN and the Gray’s Drug Co. sign downtown in Franklin–both originally built by Columbia Neon. On occasion, avid collectors and pickers reach out for restoration of their recent acquisitions as well.
Preserving Columbia's Neon History
One thing they get asked a lot is whether or not their vast collection of old signs (whether hanging in the ceiling of the shop or off site on one of their many graveyards) are for sale.
"I'm hesitant to move them outside of Columbia. We built these signs years ago, and I don't want that history to leave the area." Said Stofel. He says, however, that often the children and grandchildren of local longtime businessmen are now calling him to restore signs from their parents’ businesses. He, of course is happy to oblige. He told MyColumbia how the classic Alderson’s Cleaners sign was recently restored and is now at the home of an Alderson family member, for example.
Recently a librarian came to Mr. Stofel with a picture of an old neon library sign. She was hoping he knew of it’s whereabouts. It just so happened that Mr. Stofel had come across that sign years ago and kept in in his shop intending to restore it one day. He never got around to it, but he had kept it in the ceiling of the shop and was able to restore it for them. It now resides inside the public library.
From the looks of it, Columbia Neon isn't slowing down any time soon. Charles's son George, daughter-in-law Shannon, and grandson Weston are keeping the tradition alive and hope to continue their quality service and standards throughout Middle Tennessee for many years to come.
Check out TN Crossroad's video about Columbia Neon