story & photos by Bakery Boy
The phone number with just three digits and the nickel Coke got my attention. I’m not old enough to remember when either was common, but somehow the combination hit my nostalgia button.
A recently restored 1911 commercial sign filling the side of a small building in downtown Bessemer, Alabama—the city immediately west of Birmingham—brings to mind simpler times. Based on a newspaper photo from 1922, the retouched brick wall at the corner of 19th Street North and Alabama Avenue features the words Square Deal Bakery prominently at top center, along with a Coca-Cola ad, a giant 5¢ symbol, and the name Sam Raine & Co., a former owner of the single-story structure. Bright green, red, yellow, and white paint true to the period make it stand out in a district of less-flashy red brick shops, offices, and warehouses.
My favorite part is the message “FRESH BREAD & CAKES” followed by “PHONE 983” in the top right corner. Aside from the unintended double meaning (were fresh bread and cakes supposed to call?) it’s funny to think of such a short phone number. But then, with today’s cell phones, whereby frequent contacts are preset to as little as one speed-dial click, maybe we’ve gotten back to simpler times after all, even if through a far more advanced technology.
Dr. Richard Neely, a historian who teaches at Indian Springs School and a member of the Bessemer Historical Homeowners Association (which bought paint for the project), completed the task earlier this month with help from his brother, actor John Neely, and other volunteers. Both men love history and have time on their hands during the summer, so they’ve made a hobby of restoring vintage signs. Adjacent to the Square Deal Bakery sign, on a defunct freight depot, stands last summer’s project proclaiming a century-ago wine and whiskey distributor in equally bright colors. Other Neely-brothers efforts include building-size ads at historic Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham and a 1913 ad in Marion County.
“We volunteer our time. We don’t get paid. We just enjoy doing this,” says Dr. Neely. “Our history is fading out all around us. We take a little bit of time, if people will let us, to restore some of these historic signs.”
One of the aims of the Bessemer Historical Homeowners Association, he points out, is to preserve historic structures. Outdoor advertising was a relatively new part of the culture of the early 20th century, so preserving such signs is appropriate.
Exactly when the building, located next to busy railroad tracks, was constructed isn’t clear, possibly around the turn of the century. The restoration mirrors the sign as seen in the background of a 1922 newspaper photo that appeared with an article about a man getting electrocuted on overhead power lines. (That’s a whole ’nother story. If you’re interested, see the original photo preserved at the Bessemer Hall of History Museum in the old Bessemer Depot directly across Alabama Avenue from the restored sign.)
Square Deal Bakery has been gone for decades but is not forgotten. As I photographed the sign, an elderly man asked what I was doing. He then told me, pointing south across the railroad tracks, that he’d grown up in a house just a few blocks away. He recalls fondly that as a child he could walk from his home to the bakery and two movie theaters nearby. “In the 1930s,” he said, “19th Street on a Saturday night was so busy that the sidewalks would overflow and people spilled out into the street. Of course, there weren’t as many cars then, so that wasn’t a problem.”
The building currently holds four small storefronts, but Square Deal Bakery and the John Raine Co. aren’t among them. Instead there’s River’s Tailor Shop (alterations), Cal’s Ego (clothing), Just About Everything (faxing, typing, and laminating services, plus Avon products), and an empty. It’s not exactly a hopping part of town, but it’s less than three blocks south of the famous Bright Star Restaurant, a dining institution founded in 1907 that last year earned a prestigious culinary award from the James Beard Foundation (category: America’s Classics, honoring restaurants with “timeless appeal”). If you eat at The Bright Star, swing south on 19th Street, turn left on Alabama Avenue just before the tracks, and check out the restored Square Deal Bakery sign.
I’m tempted to dial Square Deal’s three-digit phone number just to see what happens. Probably an endless pause as our modern communication system awaits more numbers. Maybe, though, by way of some unexplainable Twilight Zone connection, I’ll be patched through to the ghost of a bakery from the past, where I can order bread and cakes and, when I go to pick them up, grab a Coke for just a nickel too.
The restored Square Deal Bakery sign is located at the corner of 19th Street North and Alabama Avenue, facing well-trafficked railroad tracks and the old Bessemer Depot, now home to the Bessemer Hall of History Museum (205-426-1633).