Historical Roadside Marker Procedures

What are the procedures for nominating and installing new outdoor roadside historic markers?

The answer to this question varies by state, specifically the state into which the proposed roadside marker is intended to be installed.   All states prohibit recognizing a living person.  Most states require documentation furnished by the marker sponsor/nominator as to the historical significance of the event, place, company, or person being recognized.

In the majority of the states, the same agency which is the official State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) also administers the outdoor historical markers.  The National Park Service designates the SHPO; see www.nps.gov/shpolist for current contacts.  The state agencies in Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin are among those which directly operate their Historical Marker Programs.

For instance, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pa. Historical Marker Program has been operated by the Pa. Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) since 1946, with more than 2,000 markers installed to date.  Their website (www.phmc.state.pa.us) conveniently spells out the annual nomination process, the nomination evaluation criteria, the nomination form, the costs, and any special themes in which markers are especially being invited that year.  Without the subsequent approval by the PHMC (starting with an independent panel of experts, followed by an affirmative action on the agenda of the Commissioners, not simply a staff review), the standard royal blue and gold markers may not be made.  There’s even a rule against others making look-alike versions without going through the state process.

Regardless of your state, be sure to look carefully at its guidelines for approval. Pennsylvania explicitly indicates several categories of topics, sites, etc. for which the standard markers will not be approved.  For instance, the person, place or event must not be simply significant locally, but on at least a statewide or nationwide level in order to be considered.  Or, if most of a famous person’s accomplishments occurred outside of Pennsylvania, a Pa. marker is unlikely, even if she/he were born in the Commonwealth’s boundaries.  The markers are addressed in Title 37 Pa. Consolidated Statutes (the State History Code).  As you can see, this state has a very structured nomination and approval process for new historical markers.

In New Hampshire, markers are under the jurisdiction of the New Hampshire Department Cultural Resources along with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.  Interestingly, this state also requires that application packages include petitions signed by at least 20 state citizens supporting the proposed historic marker.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources now operates their program, in conjunction with the Michigan History Foundation and the historic preservation graduate department of Eastern Michigan University.

Elsewhere, some states have transferred that responsibility to the local County Historical Societies; examples include New Jersey.  In Texas, the process starts at the County Historical Commission prior to submittal to the Texas Historical Commission.  Therefore, someone wanting to suggest (and then pay for) a marker should contact the Society in the planned county, and then follow their guidance.

However, others including New York State and Oklahoma no longer have any uniform set of procedures; rather, interested parties need only be sure they have the permission of the property owner and adhere to any local municipal ordinances/policies.

 

Who gets to decide the exact wording on a new historical marker?

Even though typically your application includes a preliminary text for the marker, once your topic has been approved, you’ll want to be sure to sharpen your pencil and wits to polish the initial version into the most succinct, accurate, unambiguous statement possible.  This is the stage to involve multiple historians and good writers who help edit the language into phrases and sentences which will not need to be revised even many years after the marker is installed.

Of course, use the fewest number of words possible.  It’s not unusual for markers to be limited to 20 – 70 words, especially if it’s along a roadway.   Alabama allows text to ‘continue’ on the second side, thus offering much more narrative.  Using lettering 5/8 inches tall, markers in South Dakota may contain 200 words.

You should avoid terms like “first”, “best”, “last”, “biggest”, “smallest”, and other absolutes unless those labels are substantiated unequivocally and with full documentation in your back-up files.

The marker-approving organization in your state will often have the final say, after a series of drafts being exchanged between you and the assigned representative.

Policies for your state will indicate whether markers are text-only, or whether photos/images or organizational symbols may be included.

 

What are the typical costs for outdoor historical markers?

Some states including Michigan, Ohio, and South Carolina charge a marker application fee of $250, which is refunded if the marker is found to be ineligible.

Marker production costs vary in relation to the materials, dimensions, style, and installation method used for a marker.  The more artwork, the higher the costs.

Presently, in Pennsylvania a city-type marker (size 27” X 41.5”) averages $1,350, while the larger roadside marker (45.25” X 45.75”) runs about $1,800; these cast aluminum markers are atop metal break-away posts.   South Dakota’s markers average $2,120.  Costs in South Carolina run from $1,665 to $1,930 depending on size and whether the text is the same or different on the two sides.  In Louisiana, the costs range from $1,650 to $2,220 also depending on size and whether text is same or different on each side.

Due to increased belt-tightening by historical preservation agencies nationwide, it’s very rare to find a state which subsidizes the design and/or production costs of markers these days.  Until 2010, PHMC provided half the cost of nearly all of the approved markers each year; such monetary support is not expected to return.  Therefore, the organization/individual nominating/suggesting a marker should realize from the start that they’ll be responsible to carry the full costs of the subsequent marker.  That’s the case now in Ohio.

On an up-note, many municipalities are willing to authorize their Public Works Departments to do the physical installation of markers, often donating the cement supplies and/or the labor involved.  The estimated value per installation is between $100 and $150.

Over time, some markers will be damaged by snow plows, automobile accidents, wind storms, vandalism, or other causes.  Long-term ownership varies by state.  PHMC provides permanent ongoing maintenance and repairs once the markers are installed; anyone who notices something needing attention can contact the Markers Program to trigger attention to the ailing marker.  But, such permanent care by the public sector is unusual.  In most states, the marker sponsor should figure on keeping an eye on and periodically retouching the post paint or reinstalling the marker at their own cost as needed.

 

What types of businesses design and produce historical markers?

There are amazingly few firms in the country offering this service for information-laden markers designed with outdoor installation in mind.

For instance, when PHMC places the orders for markers in Pennsylvania, they alternate the production of their text-only blue/gold toppers between Erie Landmark Company (www.erielandmark.com) based in Columbia, PA and Sewah Studios, Inc. (www.sewahstudios.com) based in Marietta, Ohio.  For 2011, in order to reduce PHMC staff time involved in being the middle-man for historical markers (and because PHMC no longer pays for half of the marker price), the state is allowing marker sponsors to place their orders directly with the vendor of their own choice, so long as standard specifications required by PHMC are followed.  The specs include a fairly standard metal break-away post which numerous vendors can supply.  Sewah Studios is the sole-source producer for several states presently.

Traditional markers are also produced by Atlas Signs & Plaques (www.atlassignsandplaques.com) of Lake Mills, Wisconsin and The Southwell Company (www.southwellco.com) in San Antonio, Texas.

A relatively new company on the scene is Franklin Bronze Plaques (www.franklinbronzeplaques.com) based in Franklin, PA.  As their name indicates, they specialize in any sort of customized bronze item, ranging from traditional text-only markers through dimensional photography combined with symbols and text.

Novalloy Metal Micro-imaged signs have been designed and produced for more than 40 years by Interpretive Graphics Signs & Systems (www.interpretivegraphics.com) based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

What other permissions are required for historical markers?

The answer again varies by state and municipality.  Returning to the Pennsylvania situation, the Pa. Department of Transportation requires a marker sponsor to provide written proof that the owner of the land into which the marker will be installed supports that action, as well as written proof that the local municipality agrees with the exact position selected for the marker.

Municipalities which have Historical and Architectural Review Boards (HARBs) follow local ordinances regarding outdoor signage and other structures placed in the public rights-of-way.  Check with the city, town, borough, or township where you hope to install your marker; they’ll furnish detailed instructions for submitting the necessary information.

Absolutely never install a marker into the ground (whether the spot you’ve selected is on public or private land) without having the written authorization by the property owner.  Most landowners consider it an honor to host such markers about their area’s history; but never assume that’s the case for your particular proposed marker.  And, of course, prior to any digging, follow the local “One-Call” procedures to identify any underground pipelines or other structures.

 

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Information compiled in April, 2011 by Marilyn Black; Vice President for Heritage Development; Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism; 217 Elm Street; Oil City, PA   16301; (814) 677-3152, Ext. 105; mblack@oilregion.org.   Updates/corrections are welcome, as are examples of procedures for more states.

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