When ever I post a photo of the beans sign I get asked a lot of questions about the sign, and why it is no longer illuminated. I talked with Thomas B. Mudd to find some answers and he told me about the difficulties in keeping the Saginaw landmark shining in the night sky.
The sign was built in 1948 and is approximately 50 feet wide by 35 feet tall and is the largest figural neon sign in the United States. In 1997 the beans bunny sign fund was formed at the Saginaw Community Foundation. It was funded by selling limited edition collectible stuffed bunnies. It took about $40,000 to restore and maintain the sign over about 12 years. Altrusa was a big help in designing, promoting and selling the stuffed bunnies that each represented a different bean grown in the Saginaw Valley, and also shared in the profits. Money was spent replacing all the transformers and fixing many of the 70 different pieces of neon glass tubes.
Once the sign was fixed and working properly, the remaining money was used in maintaining the sign over the years. Mr. Mudd told me “it took about $1,000 to $3,000 each year to maintain the sign, replacing broken neon or defective transformers. That does not count damage caused by extreme weather that ultimately led to the sign no longer glowing in the night sky”. The sign being exposed to the rain, shorts out the transformers, and the ice and wind will break the glass tubes filled with neon. Whenever the sign needs to be serviced, the workers can either ride up an elevator that is almost 100 years old, or climb a winding staircase which is 157 steps for 13 stories. “Carrying all the tools and equipment up a winding staircase is a challenge, not to mention you have to carry long glass tubes, some of which were broken just climbing to the sign”
Once you are at the sign, it sits on top of an old roof, and right at the edge of the building, In order to work on the sign, workers have to hang out over the edge and attach their safety harness to rusting metal structures that have been there for over 60 year. “It makes me nervous watching them, they need to have their affairs in order before they go up there” said Mudd.
The next challenge with the sign is finding skilled people who can bend neon; it’s a dying art form since many modern signs can be done with led lighting and other kinds of technology. Tom told me the local neon expert that worked on a lot of the neon in Saginaw and Flint is fighting a battle with cancer and is no longer able to work on neon..
Currently the sign could be up and working by replacing the broken transformers and neon for about $5,000 to $10,000. The bigger issue is that it needs continuous funding to keep it operational. “Once you fix something a storm comes thru and damages the sign again, and labor and parts are getting expensive to keep it operational.” Tom told me.
Thomas Mudd said converting the sign to LED was also investigated and would cost around $15,000 but it would no longer be the largest figural neon sign in the U.S.A. and the LED lighting would not look exactly the same as neon, since neon has that “magical glow” as Tom puts it. It was also discussed about having some exterior lighting illuminate the sign similar to the way the castle museum is lit at night, but it was felt it would be underwhelming and was later dismissed.
So that is where we are at with the sign at this point, Thomas said he was happy that the sign could be illuminated for more than a decade but to do it again would take considerable funding and effort. He has been focusing his time on the sign park in Old Town which is funded with a fund at Saginaw Foundation.
I want to thank Thomas B. Mudd for his help in providing me the information.
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