Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Old Clark Street Sign

(from the Nov. 25, 1992, Lowell Tribune, page 4)

On a bright summer day nearly seventy years ago, 'The Old Timer' was standing on Clark St. in Lowell, watching one of his favorite senior citizens painting a sign as if it were a masterpiece. The artist was Frederick H. Viant, son of Lowell pioneer merchant John W. Viant. He was painting the Rexall Drug Store sign at the northwest corner of Clark St. and Commercial Ave. in Lowell.

The Old Timer sadly missed seeing the modern artist, Ron Malkowski of American Outdoor Sign Co., as he recently recreated the old sign from the past. The return of the old-fashioned sign was the idea of the Lowell Improvement Team (LIT), and also the dream of the 'The Old Timer' for decades. Fred Viant was noted for an unusual trademark on his signs and paintings, but his usual large spider web in one corner was not found on his Rexall sign.

Fred Viant, whose actual birthdate we haven't found, was born sometime in the 1850's, soon after his father, John W. Viant, and his mother, Ann (Jones) Viant, arrived in Lowell in the spring of 1857.

John Viant soon became a partner of Jonah Thorn, who is listed as the first storekeeper in the town of Lowell. John later owned a three story building on the east corner of Clark and Commercial, a frame building which burned in the great fire of 1898. He was also postmaster at Lowell from 1858 to 1865, the time of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

A few residents of the area may still remember Fred Viant as a fine painter of nature scenes, as well as a sign painter. His Rexall sign, painted in the early twenties, included a directional sign to "Chicago," but why would the Chicago sign be on Clark St. in the center of the old business district in Lowell?

U.S. 41 was only a dream at that time, and there was no bridge on Mill St. over Cedar Creek, for it dead-ended on account of the location of the old Mill Pond. The bridge on Mill Street was erected in about 1928, when the 'Cement Road' was built to Cedar Lake.

Travelers from Lowell on their way to Chicago would drive up Clark St., go along Cedar Lake and take what was called the Jackson Highway to the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30), then drive west to Torrence Ave. and on into the city.

On the site of Halsted's First Addition to the Town of Lowell, the brick building at the northwest corner of Clark St. and Commercial Ave. was built in 1899 by Albert Webb for George M. Death (pronounced Deeth). This building replaced a frame building which was destroyed in the big fire of 1898.

According to his hardware advertisement in a 1906 history book, Death sold high-grade hardware, stoves, ranges, Stewart hard coal burners, Coles Hot Blast coal stoves and 1847 silverware. He continued in that line of business until his death in 1911. His son took over the management until his entry into the army in 1918. After the hardware business was closed, the building was rented to a member of a pioneer family, Logan Scritchfield (1885-1941), who moved his drug business from the present Colfax Masonic Lodge building west on Commercial Ave. He had purchased the stock of Davis Driscoll a few years before, and was the owner of the store who commissioned Fred Viant to paint the advertising sign on the east side of the building.

The well-known Rexall drug store had one of Lowell's most popular soda fountains, with marble counters and large ornamental mirrors, and served good old-fashioned ice cream to customers seated as what is known today as "ice cream furniture," with wire design. The building had a hand-operated elevator for moving merchandise between the three levels.

Two other drug stores were housed in the building after Scritchfield and his wife, Hazel, departed. Frank Gullstrom, a pharmacist employed by Hazel after the death of her husband, purchased the business a few years later. With his wife, Mildred, he operated a successful drug store there for years until it was sold to Tom Cassman. Cassman later moved the business around the corner onto Mill St., where it was burned out in 1976.

The building at 319 E. Commercial Ave. now houses two businesses on the first floor: Mary Dahl, CPA, and the 'Country Keepsakes' shop. The present owners are Richard and Dawn Meadows, who gladly cooperated with the Lowell Improvement Team when they gave permission to restore the old sign.

Last updated on October 17, 2005.

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