How a Lee’s Summit duo is reviving eye-catching signs of KC’s past
The iconic face of Katz Drug Store — the famed retail operation that grew from the streets of Kansas City to eventually become CVS — is set to return to its hometown thanks, in part, to a pair of unlikely neon sign restorationists.
Dave Eames and Ben Wine’s work stems from a desire to keep Kansas City’s glowing history on public display — on view for all, the duo behind Fossil Forge said. In addition to recreating a double-sided, 10-foot Katz Drug Store logo, they recently purchased a Town Topic sign at auction, and plan to restore and display it — another icon of downtown KC that shouldn’t be lost to a private collection, they said.
“The collector market for neon signs is red hot right now, and that’s something Ben and I are plugged into quite a bit, knowing that if a sign is bought by a collector, you might never see it again in public,” Eames said.
Lee’s Summit-based Fossil Forge regularly works with The Lumi Neon Museum, a nonprofit that aims to rescue and restore historic neon signs in Kansas City. The museum doesn’t have a physical location; it aims to display renewed signs in a high-visibility spot, such as the Crossroads Arts District, Eames said.
Lumi hired Fossil Forge to recreate the Katz sign, featuring the iconic cat’s face that once adorned Katz Drug Stores, cans of Katz beer and even the Kansas City Katz amateur baseball club.
“Imagine if you took a walk to the Crossroads and see this crazy, spinning cat head. It will be the coolest thing in town,” Eames said.
“Watch out, Western Auto sign!” Wine chimed in.
The Katz project is ongoing, but the two have even more projects in the works.
Fossil Forge’s work — brainstorming, designing, welding and doing electrical work for signs old and new — might not seem like a natural fit for the two men, they said. Eames is an illustrator and graphic designer who spent two decades of his career working at newspapers. Wine’s background is in the restaurant industry.
Still, Eames considers Fossil Forge a “young, emerging business that has years of experience behind it,” even though he started tinkering and selling small projects to friends and family back in 2002.
At that time, he was working full-time at the Kansas City Star, mostly in the evenings, and his days were free to explore welding as a hobby.
“It was just a little side job. I was doing some art fairs,” he said. “I had a little bit of success doing a few things that kind of spurred me to really think about what else this business may be.”
Though he survived layoffs during the Great Recession, Eames said, he was constantly considering an “escape plan” as the newspaper and the industry suffered ups and downs. A cluster of events in his personal life resulted in “nature’s nudge” to strike out in a new direction, he said. In 2013, he put in his notice at the paper to go out on his own.
Eames met Wine as a client when Wine was opening a restaurant that needed metalwork. They became friends, bonding over a love of old neon signs. When Wine decided to leave the restaurant industry, he worked at other sign shops in Kansas City to “absorb as much as I possibly could,” he said.
“I knew I ultimately would come back and try to work with Dave here in the shop in downtown Lee’s Summit,” Wine said.
That opportunity came in 2017, when the two became business partners.
“He really complemented what we were doing already in the company, and it was all the stuff I desperately needed, which included business acumen,” Eames said. “He was also very creative on the design side. … It made us better, and it’s certainly made us more efficient in terms of how we build and how we install.”
Fossil Forge is entrenched in Lee’s Summit, and its commitment to the neighborhood has paid off. From its shop at 317 SE Main St., the company has created signs for many of its downtown neighbors. It also took part in an effort to repeal an ordinance banning neon signage in the downtown area. The effort wasn’t simply to boost their business — people enjoy these signs, Eames said.
“Now we’ve got over a dozen neon signs slowly flickering here that people just love, and they stop and tell you on the sidewalk or they take pictures of it,” he said. “The neon resurgence is here to stay. … Old advertising really brings back a lot of memories for people, whether it’s, you know, a faded Coke sign on a building or an old neon sign. Those things seem to really evoke emotion that sometimes buildings don’t. It’s pretty cool.”
Wine attributes the lasting appeal to the designers, who were able to draw and animate the signs with color.
“They were as good if not better than architects,” he said. “I think we really lost the sense of design, probably through the ’80s and ’90s with the birth of the computer and vinyl graphic systems.”
Fossil Forge takes pride in bringing back the signs and the emotions that go along with them. One of its current projects is a sign for a new development across the street from its shop. The building houses condos and commercial space, but the developers created a replica facade of the Vogue Theater, which opened in the 1940s but was torn down years ago. To complete the look, the building’s owner asked Fossil Forge to replicate the historic art deco neon sign.
“We said, ‘Heck yeah!’ That’s exactly the kind of project we love,” Eames said. The large marquee will include coral and turquoise neon elements and will be “by far the biggest sign down here.”
“I think it will become a neat landmark for the city,” he added.
‘We just had to do it’
The company’s connections with Lee’s Summit have helped it gain clients elsewhere in Missouri. The city is affiliated with Missouri Main Street Connection, an organization that works to preserve and revitalize downtowns across the state. It had received a call from Concordia about restoring a sign for Topsy’s restaurant and asked Fossil Forge to help.
The new owner, who had worked at the restaurant when she was younger, found the restaurant’s original sign in an attic and wanted to put it back on the building. Fossil Forge repaired some broken neon parts, but the sign was in relatively good shape. Wine found the original sign bracket still on the building, making installation a breeze. But the story had another exciting twist.
The new owner planned to use grant money to pay for the sign’s restoration, and the Fossil Forge duo considered the project a “labor of love.” One day, a patron visited them at the shop; his wife was from Concordia and had worked at Topsy’s. The couple wanted to pay for the sign’s restoration as anonymous donors. When sharing the news with restaurant’s owner, “there were some tears,” Eames said.
“That was such an exciting thing to tell somebody that there’s really awesome people out there,” he said. “That was a fun day to let her know that good news.”
Another recent project materialized through a Facebook post involving Uranus, Missouri — a kitschy stop along historic Route 66. The Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store was interested in a mural to help entice travelers to stop for a selfie and visit the gift shop. (The store’s motto: “The best fudge comes from Uranus!”)
“When the job showed itself, we just had to do it. There was just no way around it,” Eames said.
Fossil Forge designed a mural map of some highlights along Route 66 incorporating neon signage with animation.
“One of the things we offer as a company, which I think is fairly unusual, is we’ve got abilities to do everything from murals to neon signs and everything in between,” Eames said.
The Uranus project involved some complicated logistics, such as transporting signs 8 feet to 16 feet long with 85 pieces of neon glass the nearly 200-mile distance to their final destination. The challenges “used all sides of our brain,” Eames said. But in the end, it all came together and was showcased at a lighting ceremony last summer.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled how it turned out. The client was thrilled and so much fun to work with,” he said.
Signs of growth
Not every project Fossil Forge takes on is a retro restoration. In addition to its commercial business, it also owns a boutique, Local Foundery, in downtown Lee’s Summit. The store sells a mix of vintage items, small-scale projects made at the shop and goods from other local makers. Wine said opening a retail location was a response to the people who would stop by the workshop wanting to buy gifts and decor.
The owners continue to invest in the business so it can grow, last year buying a bucket truck for installations. They currently work with a local neon supplier, but they bought equipment to learn how to do it in-house.
“That craft is crazy difficult to master,” Eames said.
On the whole, Eames said he has no regrets about leaving his day job for small business ownership. Despite the challenges, he sees exciting work ahead.
“We have been fortunate to do cool projects which have led to other cool projects. That’s where the compass is pointing right now,” he said.
Watch a video story on Fossil Forge below from Flatland KC, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.