The new National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles glows with nostalgia

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The warm glow of neon sign nostalgia greets visitors inside the National Neon Sign Museum in downtown The Dalles.

The museum, which opened in 2019, contains an array of colorful and bright signs from the Depression era to the neon heyday after World War II, including a gallery of mock showcases mimicking a main street in the 1950s.

“Signs are very similar to songs,” said museum creator David Benko. “You might hear a song you haven’t heard in two years, three years, 10 years, and it will bring back memories. The signs are roughly the same.

Benko’s collection includes familiar advertising icons – the Greyhound bus racing dog, the Mobilgas Pegasus and Elsie the Cow from Borden’s Ice Cream. There are also some unusual pieces, including a five-foot-tall margarita glass of glowing bubbles and an animated welder who once advertised a welding supply company in Chicago.

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The contents of the museum are taken from Benko’s large private collection of vintage signs and advertisements. Benko, who grew up in Kirkland, Wash., said he’s been an antique collector since he was a teenager, picking up things like jukeboxes, metal signs and telephone insulators on “picking” trips to across rural America, which he would later sell or trade with other collectors.

“Probably at 8 or 9 years old, I was collecting things,” Benko said. “I started with small things. Small things have become bigger things. By the time I graduated from high school, I had nearly 100 gas pumps in my mom’s backyard.

He bought his first neon sign when he was around 16, “and then I was really addicted to neon,” he said.

This interest led him to an apprenticeship in the sign industry. In 1988, Benko founded his own neon repair company, Rocket City Neon, currently based in Camas, Washington.

“What’s on display in the museum is maybe 5-10% of my collection,” he said, “but one of the great things about it is that we have the ability to always change things.”

In addition to showcases of light displays, the museum tells the story of electric lighting and the development of neon tubes. Among the artifacts in the collection is a 1911 neon tube created by French engineer Georges Claude, the first to patent neon lighting.

“I have pieces of neon that still light up today that were made a hundred years ago,” Benko said.

Neon lighting works by electrifying neon, or another noble gas, inside a sealed vacuum tube. This is one thing visitors to the museum will learn: not all neon signs are lit with neon. Neon gas glows red, while argon or mercury glows blue, and helium produces an orange-tinged shade of white. Various shades ranging from pink to green are created by colored coatings on the glass tube containing the gas.

The heyday of neon signs stretched from the 1920s to the 1950s, Benko said. By the mid-1960s, polycarbonate plastic had become the cheapest (and least brittle) material of choice for illuminated signs.

But neon lights still have a unique visual appeal, best experienced in museum gallery rooms lit only by their glow.

The museum is located inside the former Elks Temple, built in 1910. The Dalles Urban Renewal District purchased the former three-story building, which had fallen into disuse and dilapidated, in 2015 and entered into an agreement development with Benko for the site. He received the property with the promise to restore the building and turn it into a museum for his neon collection.

The museum is still in its infancy, with more exhibits to come. Benko is currently undergoing a basement renovation that will include a classroom and neon shop where apprentices can get hands-on experience creating and repairing neon tubes.

The second floor of the museum occupies what was once the Ballroom of the Elks. The dance floor is now surrounded by neon-lit faux facades, including an electronics store, jewelry store, and a life-size replica of a Town Pride Frozen Custard booth. The space can be rented for private events.

Ironically, the National Neon Sign Museum, housed inside a historic building, has no neon signs outside. But last year, Benko installed four of its vintage signs around The Dalles, outside the Sunshine Mill Artisan Plaza & Winery, behind the Last Stop Saloon, on Sigman’s Flowers & Gifts and at the Mid-Columbia Financial Office. Medical Center. He hopes to add more over time, creating a walking tour of downtown vintage signs.

“It’s one thing to see a sign on a platform inside a building calling it a work of art,” he said. “But really, for me, the signs were made to be on the buildings. They were made to be outdoors.

If you are going to:

The National Neon Sign Museum, 200 E. Third St. in The Dalles, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, beginning in April, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday in March. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for students. Group tours with discounts are available by appointment. For more information, visit nationalneonsignmuseum.org or call (541) 370-2242.

— Samantha Swindler, [email protected], @editorswindler



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