Fading fast: Ghost signs chronicle history of Minneapolis and St. Paul

Downtown Minneapolis is filled with signs of all shapes and sizes. Some are new and hard to miss, while others exist on the edges of our collective consciousness.

Jay Grammond is haunted by ghost signs, the faded advertisements that were hand-painted on the sides of mostly brick buildings during another era.

"There's so much to discover down here because there's so many old buildings and so many new buildings all mixed together," said Grammond.

Grammond says most of them are hidden in plain sight, barely visible reminders of a time gone by.

"I just love the look of them and the fact that they are still around. Most people don't take a second look at it, but there's a lot of history right around us all over the place among the new development," said Grammond.

Grammond literally wrote the book on ghost signs called "Fading Ads Of The Twin Cities."

He photographed more than 150 of these echoes from the past and chronicled the histories of the companies or businesses responsible for putting them up.

"These were for advertising, and they were on what was then the main road going through this part of town, and it was advertising. People were on foot or in a horse and buggy or whatever, a wagon. This is where they would see the ads for these things, promoting whatever it was, the product they were trying to sell," said Grammond.

One sign on the roof of the Minnesota Opera dates almost all the way back to the beginnings of the city itself.

"It's for Champion and in the 1880s, they were the largest producer of farming equipment in the world for a while," said Grammond.

While most ghost signs are outside, there are remnants of one inside the opera building as well. The ghost signs run the gamut from casket makers and hardware stores to corporations and Gluek's Beer.

They range in size from covering the sides of buildings to being about as big as a window.

A few have been lovingly restored.  Then there are those that have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

But Grammond says they all document the evolution of the community they are in.

"My thing is, if people were slowing down enough to look at it and try and learn a little bit about it, they would realize the unique history that they're living in down here," said Grammond. 

Adam Miller is fascinated by ghost signs too.

"I just think they're an interesting gateway into local history. A history that you don't necessarily get by reading a history book," said Miller.

He started a blog about them, called "Ghost Signs of Minneapolis", more than a decade ago, as a reason to explore his hometown.

"It's fun to find them. It's fun to learn something about them and then make stupid jokes about them on your blog," said Miller.

He also created a Google map that pinpoints where the faded ads are located, so other people can hunt for them on their own.

"Once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere. But I think most people don't pay any attention to them, so they don't notice that they're everywhere," said Miller. 

For Grammond, ghost signs are works of art.

"I guess I got this idea that it's like a virtual outdoor art gallery because walking down this street alone, there's probably five or six ghost signs that we can see right as we're standing here. And they're waiting for people to look at them like I'm here," said Grammond.

He says people should enjoy them while they can because they are fading fast.

"You'll find out more about the places that you live in. I think you can appreciate it more then too," said Grammond.