By Neil Johnson - August 2nd
As contractor Brandon Rossey peeled away a decades-old awning and façade this week on a vacant storefront at 922 Milton Ave., the name of a grocer founded here a century ago revealed itself on the wall beneath—one letter at a time.
Running above the storefront windows, on a panel of ivory-white stone tile engraved with dark green letters, “Woodman’s Food Market” emerged letter by letter.
That’s just as the sign, still well preserved read at some point in the first half of the 20th Century, when Woodman’s operated its first proper grocery market on that site.
It’s an old sign, erected in the years after Woodman’s first built its market in 1921. The sign was still on display on the market’s exterior in the mid-1950s, according to Gazette archives. But a decorative awning installed after Woodman’s moved up the road in 1956 and sold off the property covered the sign for years until it reemerged this week.
Skip forward to 2022, when an area realty firm, Rock Realty, bought the site and launched renovations to bring several business suites to the 7,000-square-foot building.
On Monday, during renovation work, the old sign saw sunlight for the first time in years.
“As we were pulling the awning panels off, we started noticing, ‘Hey there’s an old sign beneath! It seemed unusual. It looked like a granite inlay, some kind of stone sign with letters engraved in it. I’d never really seen something like that before,” Rossey said. “Then, as soon as we exposed that sign, all kinds of people driving past were pulling over and stopping. They were telling us this is where the first Woodman’s was.”
Rossey, who runs 180 Property Restoration in Oconomowoc, a subcontractor on the project being launched Rock Realty, said Tuesday that the discovery had started to go viral. By Tuesday, it had gotten thousands of clicks and hundreds of comments on social media, including on local and statewide Facebook pages run by local history buffs.
“It’s Woodman’s, so in Wisconsin, lots of people know that name and the history of the grocery chain. Everyone knows the ‘Woodman’s guy’ on the TV commercials,” Rossey said. “It’s Woodman’s.”
And aside from a few cracks on a couple of the stone tiles, Woodman’s first-ever store sign appears to have remained nearly immaculate after being covered for so many years. Despite the appearance of being made of some type of soft stone, it doesn’t look much different from old newspaper photos from the 1950s.
The storefront was last owned and operated by Castaways, a thrift shop that moved to another location just to the north during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The discovery this week has prompted dozens of fascinated passersby to peel off a busy stretch of Milton Avenue just north of downtown in recent days. They want a a closer look at history unsheathed.
At one point on Tuesday morning, Rossey watched a succession of three motorists snapping pictures with their phones as they drove past. One driver blared his horn in a celebratory gesture.
Angela Pakes, the president of Forward Janesville, the city’s chamber of commerce, similarly wheeled off Milton Avenue on Tuesday to get a look. Pakes, who grew up in Janesville, had never seen the sign before. A former engineer by trade, Pakes’ mental gears were turning instantly.
She wondered out loud to a reporter Tuesday morning if it will be possible for crews to successfully extract the sign from the building and to save it, possibly for reuse and display someplace else.
Turns out that such conversations might already be in the works.
In a renovation that’s tabbed at several hundred thousand dollars, the old Woodman’s storefront will be made into suites that will hold Realtors’ offices, a title company, and insurer and a lender, Matt Heitmann, co-owner of Rock Realty, said.
Heitmann’s group bought the property late last year with a vision to create office suites. He said the firm knew that Woodman’s and other subsequent grocers had once operated out of the storefront, but the passage of time apparently had obscured the fact that the building still had a unique stone sign.
The Gazette was unable to reach officials at Woodman’s corporate offices for comment.
Heitmann said his firm and contractors are eager to move forward on the renovation and a façade rebuild, but the group wants to work out whether anybody wants to keep or re-use the sign.
He said his firm now is reaching out to Woodman’s corporate officials to see if the company would like to reclaim it.
“Just looking at pictures of it, I’m sure it’s something they’d probably like to hold onto,” Heitmann said.
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