The technology dates back to 1675, before the age of electricity. While the lights are used worldwide, the Age of Neon was most popular in the United States from about 1920–1960.

Out on Route 66, the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Mo., was built in 1934. The landmark neon sign has been standing for over 60 years, welcoming its share of travelers.

The Neon Sign Exhibit at the Kittitas County Historical Museum is a walk down memory lane. Even if you didn’t grow up on Route 66, it’s still a blast from the past of Ellensburg’s neon tradition.

The sign from the old Ranch Tavern out on the Old Vantage Highway, just east of Ellensburg, glows in all its brilliance just like it did back in the day when it welcomed locals and visitors alike to the popular watering hole. The Ranch originally opened in 1942, changed hands and was renovated a couple, three times. Despite having caught fire in 1975, it reopened again in 1977, before it was completely destroyed by fire on New Year’s Day 1987. The Ranch was eventually torn down all together, but its sign still burns bright in a permanent display in a special setting Kittitas County Historical Museum.

“This is the original sign,” museum director Sadie Thayer said. “Since the sign was visible on both sides and we’re displaying just the one side on the wall, we had to have it altered. But it’s still the original sign that was at the tavern all those years.”

The Valley Cafe featured a unique dining experience, complete with 1930’s bar decor. Like The Ranch, it was the toast of the town before eventually closing its doors in 2017. In fact, the neon signs exhibit’s restoration drew the attention of The Hotel Windrow managing partner Steve Townsend.

“Steve called over here and asked how he would go about restoring the Elks sign they plan to have on display in the lobby of the new downtown hotel,” Thayer said.

The good old days are still good, beating with the pulse of neon in a reminder of a time when the night burned with the flashing signs pointing to good times, good friends and good food.


Another display at the 9,000-square foot, six-room historical museum in downtown Ellensburg is the updated Rock and Mineral Display, which is also a permanent fixture in the entrance way. The display has been up since 2014, but Thayer utilized the work of an intern to bring the display back to life with better information and an overhaul to each case.

It features anything from agates to petrified wood with a little bit of everything. Part of the upgrade was the information cards and not just crystal, but rock displays, fossils and stone tools from the Native American tribes that used to fish the Columbia and nearby rivers.

“If you look at the grooves in the rocks you might think they were attached to a stick as some sort of club or tool. But they were really used as weights for the fishing nets they used,” Thayer said.

You can learn something every day, walking the footsteps to the present through ties to the past. There are approximately 15,000 objects in the museum’s collections, including things like tools, clothing, furniture, artwork, toys, household items, and Native American baskets, bags and stone tools.

There’s also the historic photographs, antique cars, and military stuff. The museum at 114 E. Third Ave. is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday and has a number of different programs, lectures and walking tours available.

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