PEORIA — As the shuttered Sky Harbor Steak House recently sold off all inventory, Jon Walker spotted some things he knew he had to have.
So, he plunked down $700 for three big signs — two of “Sky Harbor,” the other of “Steak House” — that he hauled back to his vintage-wares shop, Urban Artifacts, at 925 N. Sheridan Road in Peoria.
But he isn’t looking for a return on his investment. The new acquisitions have become part of the store’s permanent display of old signs of local interest, sort of an informal museum harking to Peoria’s commercial and civic past.
“There’s really nothing else like this around,” Walker said.
For nine years, the 52-year-old and his wife, Angie Walker, have run Urban Artifacts, which is jammed with pop-culture mementos for sale. Many signs can be bought, but certain selections carry no price tag. He wants to hold on to them, a catch-as-catch-can attempt to preserve vestiges of Peoria history.
“You won’t want them to get away,” Jon Walker said.
Signs are popular among vintage-memorabilia collectors, who — in person and online — scour the country. Many are lured by signs’ history and age, not the origin. Thus, Peoria-centric items boast an appeal far beyond central Illinois.
“Once someone buys something, it’s gone,” Walker said. “It probably won’t remain in Peoria.”
His assemblage recalls the Peoria area’s major institutions (Pabst Brewing Co.), former landmarks (Rialto Theater) and historical footnotes (Red Diamond Batteries). However, the collection is hardly curated or concise. Rather, he puts the signs up where he can find space, a challenge especially for his larger finds. In the hodgepodge exhibit, the signs appear in two storefront display rooms, along with two back rooms.
“I’ve got so much stuff,” he said, shaking his head with a grin.
Walker tends toward bigger signs, which — unlike smaller varieties — are harder to re-create as faux-vintage.
“There’s a lot of fakes out there,” he said before pointing to an 8-foot-tall light-up sign that once stood outside Szold’s department store. “Stuff like that isn’t fake.”
After years of dealing, Walker has an eye for rarities. For example, not long ago he bought a metal placard once at the Hiram Walker & Sons distillery — Peoria’s last from its era as “Whiskey Capital of the World.” It’s worn and plain, yet remarkable as uncommon: When the business pulled out in 1981, hardly anyone thought of the value of memorabilia four decades later.
“I like signs like this,” Walker said. “There probably aren’t a lot of these, and it’s from Peoria.”
Not that he knows every backstory. For example, there’s a giant pig named “Mr. G.,” apparently the mascot for some sort of business — maybe in Peoria, maybe elsewhere. Its mysterious uniqueness has earned it a spot on a shop wall.
“I don’t know what the pig is,” he said with a chuckle. “The pig has a history, but we don’t know yet what it is.”
He isn’t sure where he’ll put the next sign, as there’s little extra room left at the store for the permanent collection. That’s why he has to keep some at home, meanwhile dreaming of the day when he can round them all up for a permanent display.
“It’d be nice if we could have it all in one place,” he said. “That’s always been my intent.”
Phil Luciano is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at [email protected] and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.