Hi-Way Bakery's vintage neon sign turns 70, gets makeover

SOUTH CHICAGO HEIGHTS, Ill. -- Every morning at 4:30 a.m., the busiest place in South Chicago Heights is a 70-year-old bakery with a glowing neon sign out front. Hi-Way Bakery has been a local favorite since 1949, and the sign has been hanging over Chicago Road in the south suburb from the shop's earliest days.

"Since I've been here, this sign has always been a very big part of my heart in this business. I have a lot of respect for her. This is her 70th birthday now. We're trying to get her back to her gleaming beauty," said John Koester, owner of Hi-Way Bakery.

It was pure chance that when Koester reached out to the Orland Park-based Artisan Signs and Lighting for repair work on the sign, one of the two repairman turned out to be the grandson of Hi-Way's original owners, Mick Bowen.

"My grandparents founded it. Then it was handed down to my aunt and her family. They ran it for 40 - 30 to 40 years. Then they sold it to John," Bowen said. "Just to be working on something that my grandfather put up, you know, how many years ago? Definitely a good feeling."

While Bowen cleaned the inside of the sign and restored the porcelain exterior, Charlie Wood of Neon Works Sign Studio worked on the neon tubing. With the amount of work and funds required, they hope to finish repairs by the end of summer.

Wood, who considers himself a "one-of-a-kind sign animal" in the area, first fell in love with neon work while attending the Art Institute of Chicago. Along with his commissioned work, Wood is still a neon artist.

"Neon works on the same principal as lightning during a thunderstorm. It's called ionization," Wood said. "In a neon tube, you actually have a concentrated gas, like neon or an argon, that's inside. Then you send a high voltage through it and the gas lights up. Outdoors during a lightning storm, you've got all sorts of gases that are lighting up. It forms in an atmospheric pressure, where a neon tube operates in a vacuum pressure."

Jim Boehner, a Hi-Way regular and firefighter in nearby Crete, is ecstatic to have the sign restored.

"The sign has been a fixture here, I think, since 1949. It just kind of glows on these wet mornings," said Boehner, who volunteers as a docent at the Art Institute. "Neon signs have become a form of folk art... It's something that became very popular in this country between the 1920s and 1950s."

In order to help cover the $25,000 required to fully restore the sign and create an exact replica to donate to a museum, Koester recently started a GoFundMe page called "Saving Ms. Hi Way." Koester hopes the community will rally to support what he considers the progressive symbol. The sign depicts a female baker wearing a chef's hat and was made during a time that female chefs were less recognized.

"It's an iconic symbol of the South Side of Chicago, and it would be tragic really if it went away," Boehner said. "I applaud John's efforts for trying to conserve it, No. 1, and No. 2, get it back to its original state."