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House of Signs - or, the Burma-Shave Story

(its recent tragic history)

Archeologists excavating the ruins of an ancient city sometimes find under the ground layers of rubble representing still more ancient settlements. This situation has occurred generationally in the case of an industrial building located at 2322 Chestnut Avenue West in a quiet neighborhood of Minneapolis where a gruesome set of murders recently took place.

The building houses the offices and production facilities of Access Signage Systems, a company which makes interior signs in Braille using techniques developed by its owner. At 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 27, 2012, a 38-year-old man who had been fired earlier in the day entered the building through its loading dock and shot and killed a UPS delivery man and four employees of the firm, including the owner, before killing himself in the basement. In all, six persons were killed including the gunman. It was by far the worst outbreak of workplace violence in Minnesota since records have been kept.

Subsequent news stories underscore the tragedy of this event. Access Signage was making products that were developed by its founder and owner, Reuven Rahamin, in his garage. Founded twenty-eight years earlier, it now employed thirty-five persons and was exporting to many parts of the world. This was the type of manufacturing success story that politicians like to cite in hopes of reviving the economy. Indeed, Mr. Rahamin had been invited to attend a forum on jobs and innovation at the White House in March of this year. By all accounts, he was a public-spirited, kind-hearted man, beloved by those he left behind.

Submerged beneath this contemporary “American dream” now marred by violence is the story of another sign company which some in my generation may remember. I live half a mile away from 2322 Chestnut Avenue. Several years ago, an insurance representative told me that this building used to house the factory of Burma-Shave, a Minneapolis company which made shaving-cream products. However, it is better known for the poetic roadside signs that advertised its products.

Many years ago, in the 1950s, before there were interstate highways, people used to drive on U.S. or state highways through rural areas. For those bored with cows and corn fields, the Burma-Shave signs offered a welcome diversion. There would be five or six signs, spaced a hundred feet apart at the edge of the road, each with a short line of verse. The words would come on slowly and come to a funny climax in the last line. The product name would then be revealed.

The company found that hard product information didn’t sell so it changed the message to create a humorous experience. For example:

Example #1: Round the corner - lickety split - beautiful car - wasn’t it - Burma-Shave.

Example # 2: Listen birds - these signs cost money - so roost awhile - but don’t get funny - Burma Shave

Example # 3: The wolf - is shaved - so neat and trim - Red Riding Hood - is chasing him - Burma Shave

Example # 3: Your shaving brush - Has had its day - So why not - Shave the modern way - With - Burma-Shave

Example # 4: Shaving brushes - You'll soon see 'em - On the shelf - In some - Museum - Burma-Shave

Example # 5: A shave - That's real - No cuts to heal - A soothing - Velvet after-feel - Burma-Shave

Example # 6: Hardly a driver - Is now alive - Who passed - On hills - At 75 - Burma-Shave

Example # 7: Shave the modern way - No brush - No lather - No rub-in - Big tube 35 cents - Drug stores - Burma-Shave

Example # 8: Does your husband - Misbehave - Grunt and grumble - Rant and rave - Shoot the brute some - Burma-Shave

Example # 9: Our fortune - Is your - shaven face - It's our best - Advertising space - Burma-Shave

Example #10: If you - Don't know - Whose signs - These are - You can't have - Driven very far - Burma-Shave

Example #11: A shave / That's real / No cuts to heal / A soothing / Velvet after-feel / Burma-Shave

Example #12: If you - Don't know - Whose signs - These are - You can't have - Driven very far - Burma-Shave

The man behind Burma-Shave was Clinton M. Odell, who formerly had an insurance business in Minneapolis. Odell’s father, an attorney, had developed a side business called Burma-Vita for a lotion he had invented. With the help of a chemist friend, Clinton Odell developed a formula for brushless shaving cream. His two sons, Allan and Leonard, sold the product to households and pharmacies in the upper midwest.

While traveling through rural Illinois, Allan Odell saw a series of signs advertising a gas station. Back home, he convinced his father to produce signs similar to these advertising Burma-Shave. After a few were installed in farm fields along highway 35 between Minneapolis and Albert Lea, orders for Burma-Shave products started pouring in. The Odells then built a factory on Chestnut Avenue in Minneapolis, just south of Bassett Creek.

In 1963, the Burma-Vita company was sold to Philip Morris and the signs were discontinued. The American Safety Razor Company wound up owning its property.

Like Reuven Rahamin, Clinton Odell was a civic-minded businessman. In 1944, he put up $3,000 for landscaping and construction of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, not far from the Chestnut Avenue factory. Eloise Butler had been his botany teacher at the Central High School. Odell was instrumental in founding the “Friends of the Garden” in 1952. He served as its president until his death in June 1958. Friends then placed a stone bench in his honor, marked by a small metal sign, in the upland area of this garden under an oak tree.

With the autumn leaves falling down, this is a peaceful place for contemplating the latest turn of events.

Sept. 19. 2012

P.S. Bill McGaughey went to summer camp in California in 1957 with a member of the Odell family, David O. Beim, who is currently a business professor at Columbia University in New York.

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