Sign of the times

AS public art in Columbus goes, the giant milk bottle on Southeastern Avenue in east Columbus doesn’t get a lot of attention. Location might have something to do with it.

Southeastern Avenue just off Cherry Street does not have a high traffic count. Moreover, the bottle doesn’t exactly jump out at any passing motorists. It’s atop a wooden platform positioned behind a chain-link fence in a lot used primarily for parked rental trucks. There are no markers or signs providing any kind of explanation as to what it is or why it’s there.

While its relevance in the world of art is questionable, it’s rich in Columbus history. For many longtime Columbus residents, it serves as a form of nostalgia for a bygone time when milk was delivered in glass bottles to customers’ homes.

Jeff and Marilyn Kelley have kept the milk bottle in place during the seven or eight years they have owned the property even though its symbolism has nothing to do with any of their business operations. They’ve received offers to purchase the object but turned them all down. Needless to say, they’re received numerous inquiries as to why an oversized milk bottle is part of the decor in a parking lot for rental trucks.

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They’re hard-pressed to answer that one, although their dedication to the keepsake is genuine. Part of that dedication comes from their family roots. Both are Columbus natives and have memories of the milk bottle in its original life.

That life began in Columbus around the 1950s when it was perched on the roof of Franke’s Dairy on State Street, only a few feet from its present home. The bottle was a promotional prop for the dairy store below. Emblazoned across the front of the bottle at the time was the message, “Home of Safe Milk.”

Such oversized promotional gimmicks were pretty common in those days, as merchants searched for impressive logos that symbolized their business or main products. One of the neighbors on State Street was Gross Hardware, which used a giant hammer outlined by neon lights as an identifying symbol.

Like the dairy, Gross Hardware went out of business, but the hammer remained in place for years thereafter. It was more identifiable because of its location on a much busier street. In fact, many folks in the area used it as a reference point when giving directions to visitors coming into Columbus from the south.

The hammer would likely have remained in place save for a planned widening of State Street around 2007. Owner Beth Dilley, whose father, George, had started Gross Hardware, was forced to find a new home for the artifact and eventually donated it to the Sign Museum in Cincinnati, where it is a featured attraction.

While Jeff and Marilyn Kelley have no plans to part with the milk bottle, they’re pretty well set on who should get first crack at it should they change their minds. “In that event, the Franke family deserves it,” Jeff said.

Bob Franke, one member of the family, will certainly be willing to add it to his collection of Columbus memorabilia. Bob, owner of the Dairy Queen franchise on Third Street, already is in possession of one of the city’s iconic signs — the hand-waving clown that for several decades was the identifying symbol for the Dairy Queen on 25th Street.

He’s also very familiar with the Franke’s Dairy milk bottle from his days of delivering milk for the family business. For decades it was owned and operated by his grandfather, August Franke Sr., and his children. One of those was Roscoe Franke, Bob’s father.

“As I recall, the milk bottle’s origins go back to the days of the Pioneer Day parade in downtown Columbus,” Bob recalled. “It was put on a wagon and carted through the downtown area to promote the dairy. Somewhere along the line it was put on the roof of the store.”

At some point the signage informing passers-by that Franke’s Dairy was the “Home of Safe Milk” was painted over, which I suppose lowers its nostalgic value. On the other hand, it would be pretty easy to paint the same message back on the bottle.

Trouble is, there’s no Franke’s Dairy to display it.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.