Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating a vintage Dairy Queen sign in Janesville August 22, 2012

ICE CREAM. It has to be the single treat with the most universal appeal. And I expect Dairy Queen rates as the company most universally known for its soft-serve ice cream.

With 6,000 plus Dairy Queens throughout the world, this fast food franchise certainly has established itself as a dominating presence since the first DQ opened in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois.

The Dairy Queen along old U.S. Highway 14 in Janesville on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Within 40 miles of my home are 35 Dairy Queens, including two right here in Faribault, and a walk-up DQ along old U.S. Highway 14 in Janesville some 30 miles away.

On a recent Sunday afternoon while passing through Janesville, located east of Mankato and with a population of about 2,100, I photographed the DQ. I wasn’t hungry, having just eaten too much at a church potluck. But I didn’t let that keep me from stopping at the DQ to photograph this long-time business with the vintage signage.

The vintage Dairy Queen sign that drew me to the Janesville DQ.

It’s the sign that caused me to stop because, well, I like and appreciate old signs as works of art. They’re also classic, charming cultural and historic icons in a community.

I was a bit dismayed, though, when the woman working the counter suggested that once the lights fizzle on the sign, it will be replaced with a newer, more modern DQ sign because, really, who could fix the lighting?

I insisted that shouldn’t happen and may have pleaded a bit. “You can’t do that.”

But she seemed resigned to the sign’s eventual replacement.

On the bottom edge of the sign, I noticed LEROY SIGN REG.

Not so fast. I noticed LEROY SIGN REG printed along the lower edge of the DQ sign. That was just enough for me to google the company and track down the sign’s origin with Leroy Signs & Manufacturing of Brooklyn Park.

After viewing a photo I took of the Janesville sign, Ralph Leroy “Lee” Reiter III told me it dates back to the late 1940s or early 1950s and is one of about 50 made by his grandfather, Ralph Leroy Reiter, Sr. While the younger Reiter doesn’t know exactly how many of these specific signs were placed in Minnesota, he says his third-generation company recently refurbished one in Columbia Heights and he knows of one in Robbinsdale and another in Brooklyn Park.

I was especially pleased to learn that the 75-year-old family business he co-owns with siblings Kaj Reiter and Andria Reiter can replace the neon lighting and otherwise refurbish the porcelain enamel finished vintage DQ sign.

On the other side of the DQ, looking toward downtown Janesville.

Lee Reiter has high praise for the condition of the Janesville DQ sign. “It’s one of the cleanest I’ve seen and in really good condition.”

He observed, though, that the sign may have been touched up some. You could fool me. The sign as designed decades ago—DQ designed and Leroy Sign made the sign—allowed it to take in water, Lee noted.

Early on in DQ’s history, Leroy Signs made signs for DQ, last doing so about five years ago.

As for that vintage DQ sign in Janesville, Lee says if the owner ever wants to get rid of it, he’ll take it. That, in itself, should tell you something, don’t you think?

You know you’re in a rural town when you see a combine driving down the street like this John Deere which passed the Janesville DQ.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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16 Responses to “Appreciating a vintage Dairy Queen sign in Janesville”

  1. That is a great sign. When I was a kid, there was a barbecue place near our house that had the greatest neon outlined pig with an ear that seemed to flap (lights on and off). One night I dreamed that they took down the sign, so the next time I visited the folks, I took some photos. Quite a few years went by before the sign came down, but I was so glad to have the pictures. It was such a one-of-a-kind sign.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That pig sign sounds like a one of a kind. You ought to post photos of it on your blog and write about it. I’d love to see it.

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    Ahhhhh, the good ole days….sigh! Thanks for the awesome follow-up with the neon sign fella! I didn’t believe the DQ gal’s assessment at all!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, I’m pretty curious and just had to find out more info about that sign. Hopefully the owner of the Janesville DQ will decide to keep the vintage sign since Leroy Signs can replace lights and otherwise refurbish the sign as needed.

  3. Douglas Glass Says:

    Really nice post, and I love that you gift-wrapped a solution for the store owners, too. As for replacing this old sign with one of Dairy Queen’s new signs, that would be awful. The logo they redesigned just a few years ago is a failure, a major step backward from the solid, no-nonsense DQ logo of my youth in the ’70s and ’80s.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Douglas. I just can’t see getting rid of something if there’s any possible way to keep it. Thus my scouting for a solution. Here’s hoping the Janesville DQ keeps its vintage sign for years and years and years.

  4. Now you have my mouth watering and craving Dairy Queen:) Have a Great Day!

  5. Jackie Says:

    Well I do hope the owners of the DQ think twice before replacing the sign! We really need to preserve the things from yesteryear that we don’t see much of anymore. I’m with you Audrey, Hope they reconsider 🙂

  6. Amy Says:

    I enjoy your research on the sign, but this place is more than a sign to me. Having an aunt that lives in the area, we travel that stretch of road often and you can hear in the back-seat, “Mom, can we stop for ice cream?” Now, it doesn’t take too much convincing with my mom to stop…we often did. We always loved this one because it was “so cool!” I suppose because you don’t see this walk-up style restaurants any more, and even the two you talk of in Faribault, the seasonal one still has an enclosed entry-way. So I guess it is a piece of childhood nostalgia for me, and I am always impressed as I get older, how great of condition it seems to stay in.

    Next time you are in Janesville, you should check out Cahill Pharmacy, it is on Main street, just around the corner from the DQ!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Precisely, Amy. These vintage signs are so much more than signs. They represent memories and nostalgia. I know what pharmacy you’re talking about as I photographed a window display there the last time I explored Janesville on a Sunday afternoon. Of course, the pharmacy was not open then… What, exactly, will I find therein?

      • Amy Says:

        Other than your typical pharmacy, it doesn’t have the feel of “big box” pharmacies of today. They have displays of collectables like Precious Moments and even offer free wrapping services! My parents were on a first name basis with them for a while when they were really big into collecting Precious Moments. We can tell where the gift under the tree came from and know what it is, but just have to figure out which one!! It is simply a cute, quaint small town pharmacy!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Alright, you definitely have me adding the pharmacy in Janesville to my list of places to visit.

  7. Sara Says:

    I came across this article while doing research on older dairy queen signs. I am sad to tell you all that DQ corporate recently sent a letter out to all owners calling for all stores to update to the modern signs by 2016. I am from Topeka, KS where there is also still a walk-up Dairy Queen with a vintage sign. Our community is already speaking out about how saddening it would be to lose the sign. Hopefully they will make exceptions!

    • Oh, Sara, this is unsettling news. Kudos to your community for rallying and trying to save your vintage DQ sign. I hope the same happens in Janesville, although that seems unlikely based on what I was told two years ago. But you never know.

      Have you contacted Leroy Signs and Manufacturing? Maybe historic info gathered from this company will help you all plead your case.

      Please keep me posted and feel free to email me personally. See my “About” page for contact info.

      Good luck with your drive to save your community’s vintage DQ sign.


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