Published January 28th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
LEE’S SUMMIT, Missouri – Just off downtown’s main drag, Dave Eames and Ben Wine welcome customers into the Fossil Forge workshop. It’s a decent sized room with metal shavings on the concrete flooring, vintage machinery and walls covered in antique signage.
The typography, colors and unique designs of these old signs are what inspire the duo to not only create new signs, but to also restore and replicate signs from decades past.
They’re a busy team, taking in old signs people drop off and tackling huge projects, like the recreation of the historic Vogue Theatre sign for downtown and making a replica of the Katz Drug sign that once graced several street corners in Kansas City.
Fossil Forge has come a long way since it started in the early 2000s as a hobby in Eames’ garage.
As a lifelong creative, teaching himself metal and woodworking was just something he liked to do before his evening shift creating graphic illustrations at The Kansas City Star.
Slowly, while honing his craft and meeting others in the sign industry, he realized he wanted to do this type of creative work full time.
“I started to sell a few things, which of course gives you a lot of hope (that) maybe you’ve got something here,” Eames said. “So by the late 2000s that’s when I was really starting to think that this could be something I wanted to do full time, when the right time arrives.”
That time did arrive, and very clearly to Eames.
The Star, along with most newspapers and many industries, laid off employees during the Great Recession.
“Really, really hard time to see your friends walk out the door,” Eames said. “I kind of thought I might lose my job too, and it just didn’t happen.”
Soon after, Eames started having some heart problems, and then he lost both of his parents.
“Things like that really make you think about how I’m spending my time,” Eames said. “That was kind of the final nudge to get me to leave a full-time job, with benefits.”
While all the signs told him to take the leap, it was by no means easy. Eames had four children, all around college age, but he knew it was the right thing to do.
“I left to start a new life, doing this,” Eames said.
Since that decision in 2013, the business has grown to be well known in the area, and a bit of a playmaker in the downtown Lee’s Summit scene.
He brought on Wine and moved the business into its current location at 317 S.E. Main St. But that wasn’t the end of Fossil Forge’s innovation.
“One of the most interesting parts about doing what we do and our shop is just staying curious and really wanting to learn other things,” Eames said. “I think it’s what drives us, it motivates us.”
Each project brings on a new challenge. Right now, the shop is building a recreation of the historic Katz Drug sign.
The project is part of ongoing Kansas City neon preservation with the Lumi Neon Museum.
Nick Vedros, president of the museum, said a couple of years ago he had the crazy idea to replicate the sign he remembers most from his childhood. After several bids, he put the project in the able hands of Eames and Wine.
“To me, the holy grail of neon signs was going to be the Katz Drug,” Vedros said. “When people think of a business that was long gone, a lot of times they think of the front of the store, and then more importantly, they think of the sign because the sign was lit up with all these amazing neon colors.”
The Katz Drug was a Kansas City chain famous for its cheap prices on everything from cigarettes to cosmetics. But, as Vedros put it, what most people probably remember most is the smiling, suited cat which lit up the front of the drugstore.
The Fossil Forge recreation will feature the signature, curving Katz font, and a spinning cat head on top.
Vedros hasn’t disclosed the location of the Lumi neon display, but said he has close to 25 restored signs that will illuminate an alley of Kansas City as early as this summer.
“These signs are a big part of our city’s historical fabric, and it’s important to not forget them,” Vedros said.
Signs used to be viewed as a serious artform. When plastic and vinyl signs entered the market in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Eames said, signage became more of a quick, manufactured industry.
Wine sees a trend as people are pulled away from plastics and disposable materials, to return to metal, wood and more classic construction, which is fortunate for the metal-working team.
“We’re ‘historians’” Wine said. “We just like old, interesting things.”
Now the downtown area of Lee’s Summit is lit up with colorful and creative signs, both old and new.
Donnie Rodgers, the executive director of Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street, is happy to see the history and buzz returned to downtown.
“I love seeing the artistry and the historic tiebacks of that type of signage,” Rodgers said. “It makes (downtown) so much more exciting and unique.”
Throughout the area, Fossil Forge has remade or refurbished signs that mean a lot to the locals.
The Vogue Theatre was remodeled decades ago and turned into a retail space with condominiums up top. The facade was redone to mimic the original theater front and Fossil Forge crafted a replica of the neon sign.
Once installed, the sign will serve as a reminder of the town’s history, a bygone era and the beauty of colorful lights.
“There are people in that community that remember that sign from when they were kids,” Wine said. “Those are the feel good projects, when something gets back where it belongs.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.