Like most things that age, so it is with the so-called "wooden nickel," the welcome sign to Lehigh at the intersection of Lee Boulevard and Homestead Road. The giant sized, maybe 20 to 25 feet tall circular sign, is in a state of deterioration and this week a structural engineer will visit the big sign and inspect it and report its recommendations to the Lehigh Community Council.
Tami Baker, chairman of the Community Council, said the state of repair is apparent and many in the community have asked the council for help. Baker appointed a small committee of members of the council at its last meeting.
Linda Carter, a member of the committee charged with finding out the condition from a structural engineer, said today that a report will be presented at the next Community Council meeting on Sept. 15. The council meets on the third Monday night at the Community Meeting Room at the Lee County Sheriff's East Side substation at 1301 Homestead Road.
Linda Carter points to damage at the Welcome to Lehigh Acres sign.
Carter said Rick Anglickis, a longtime member and past president of the Community Council, was able to offer some history of the Welcome to Lehigh sign since most of the members are not long-time residents of Lehigh.
Anglickis says he remembers as he came to Lehigh early on when the Lehigh Corporation ran the town.
Carter said Anglickis told the group that the sign was first situated on Joel Boulevard at the main Lehigh Corporation complex and offices.
Who came up with the design is unclear- it may have been the logo for the Lehigh Corp., but it is believed to have been members of the corporation, which was a "company tow" for the Lehigh Corp., which advertised in the north the community of Lehigh and how affordable it was for retirees to buy property here, build a house, and retire one day in Lehigh.
Carter, who is also a member of the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District, said the present giant-sized Welcome to Lehigh sign or "wooden nickel," as it is called by most people, said it had been moved to its present location in the 1980s. It may have been originally constructed in the 1960s.
"Nobody owns it, as far as we can come up with," Carter said. "It belongs to the community. However, the landscaping around it is maintained by the county and at some times, the local hospital under different ownership also shared in the land's upkeep with all types of shrubs. Two years ago, County Commissioner Frank Mann gave a two-pronged tall palm tree to the community and it was planted about 100 feet from the welcome sign. It still thrives today and can be seen driving into Lehigh on Lee Blvd.
"But it is difficult for drivers to see the 60 to 70-year-old sign because the letters on it have faded badly, due to the hot sun and the age," Carter said.
"The structural engineer will give us options which will be first presented to the Lehigh Acres Council. Those options could be anything from repairing it to tearing it down," Carter said.
Carter went on to say that the main part of the big sign is built out of plywood and covered with chicken wire, which was used to attack stucco to the structure. Then from there, flat or small form stones were attached.
"The form stones are thin, like the ones they used to use in lanais around here, like stepping stones, not the thick type of exterior form stone people used on houses years ago," Carter said.
Carter showed the base of the welcome sign where severe rusting and complete chunks of soldered base is falling away.
"Like all things, once it gets old, it begins to deteriorate and that is what the stone is doing. However I don't think it is in danger of falling. It has survived several hurricanes over the nearly 60 years since it was first built, erected at the Admiral Lehigh Corp. complex, and then moved to its present location.
Some attempt was made to maintain the sign by a group of people whose names appear on a brass plaque at the base of one sign of the welcome sign.
"When we learn what we have to do, whether it is to rebuild, demolish or what, it will have to be funded by the community since it belongs to them," Carter said.
Also available, Carter said, may be grants from historical groups and others and there could even be a plea to help from the Lee County Council.
In addition to Carter, other members were asked to join a small committee to find out what must be done to the welcome sign. They include Judy Brill and Enrique Deandres. Tami Baker, council president, is also a part of the group since she heads the Community Council. Rick Anglickis, who knows more history about the Nickel Sign than anyone else probably in Lehigh, is also a part of the supporting group.
"The whole sign needs to be cleaned; parts of the sign are missing there used to be night lights that illuminated it when it was dark, but they don't work anymore," Carter said.
When Carter was asked for a reaction to what should happen, all that was said was "I can't make a decision as how I feel until we hear from the structural engineer from Fort Myers. After that we will know something that may guide us to make a decision and we want everyone in Lehigh to know it is a community decision and all the input from the people is needed. We will keep the community informed all along the way after the engineer's study," Carter said.
"We just won't know anything until the engineers check it out."
Carter said the wooden nickel is a major landmark in the downtown area and said it might be possible to have it recognized as an historical place with such a designation.