An oldies channel recently played an old favorite of mine from the past: “Signs,” which originated with a Canadian group in 1971, the Five Man Electrical Band. A line of the song called to mind a rather interesting hike from long ago. The second stanza begins with, “And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight,” a lyric reminiscent of certain signs that once caused me more than a little consternation.
In the late 1970s, while exploring the fringes of a unique natural area in Clinton County, I found myself on a very old, rocky, uneven road that crossed both state and private land. The owners of the private land, according to my map, had taken liberties with their property claims, planting some of their posted signs on state-owned land.
Only the signs didn’t simply say Posted. The first one said, Tombstone Territory — Keep Out. In such a remote area, feelings of trepidation and curiosity filled me, but curiosity won out, so I kept going. A bit farther down the road was Tombstone Territory — Proceed At Your Own Risk. Scary, but not enough to dissuade me. Next came Tombstone Territory — Trespassers Will Be Shot. It occurred to me that if something did happen, it would be a long time before anyone found me out there. But nerves and uncertainty were again overcome by wondering what was so important that it be kept secret.
Signs saying Turn Back, Or Else! and Prepare to Meet Your Maker relaxed me a little. I love funny stuff, and someone apparently had a pretty good sense of humor to string messages like that together. While I found nothing of significance while “trespassing” into forbidden territory, friends later told me the property abutting state land was owned by “a bunch of outlaws” — hunters who had little regard for seasons or bag limits. From my many experiences with poachers up north, it certainly rang true.
Not so funny was that five years later, about ten miles from Tombstone Territory, I confronted a man shooting — from the road, with his rifle steadied across the car roof — into land that came with the house I was renting with my family. He threatened me with his rifle, so after he left, I called the local game wardens. By my description of him, the car, and providing his first name, they knew who it was, and said not to worry, he’s a known deer poacher but he wouldn’t have shot you.
Small comfort it was, but I wondered how they knew. Well, when he threatened me with his rifle, his female passenger had become frantically upset, telling him repeatedly, “_______, get in the car!” (Lucky for me, she called him by name.) The wardens knew from my description of her that the woman was not his wife, and that his wife would have shot him if she knew what was going on. He was, they said, one of the brothers who owned the land marked with Tombstone Territory signs. Well whaddayuhknow!
After the wardens left, I was still steamed that a loaded rifle had been pointed at me. Filing charges carried lots of baggage, including the ongoing threat of retaliation, which could endanger my family, so that was not an option. But I’m always looking for humor in things, and I did enjoy those signs, so I wondered … how could I repay him in one fell swoop for both the laughs and the threats? And then a thought occurred — wouldn’t it be both funny and vengefully satisfying if, after a little time passed, his wife received an anonymous phone call revealing his shenanigans? Turns out, it was. For anyone thinking that was too harsh (I’m guessing you’ve never had a loaded gun pointed at you), it might comfort you to know they were still married ten years later.
It’s hard to accept that such a crude lout was clever enough to have created that series of signs. Must’ve been one of his brothers … but I digress, for the subject at hand is sign-related humor. The song “Signs” reminded me of that story, and of some other sign-related humor collected from regional newspapers. A few samplings:
The Franklin Gazette, 1878: “To advertise his ale, Mr. Jones had painted on the grave-yard fence: Use Jones’ Bottled Ale If You Would Keep Out Of Here.”
The Adirondack Record in 1909 described warning signs posted on Bill Pickleton’s property: “NOTIS: Trespasers will be persecuted to the full extent of 2 mean mongrel dogs wich ain’t never ben overly soshibil with strangers and a dubbel barl shot gun wich ain’t loaded with no sofy-pillers. Dam if I ain’t tired of this helraisin’ on my property. Yours respectful, Bill Pickleton.”
Reported in the Chateaugay Record, 1926, a notice painted on the side of an old, beat-up Potsdam car possibly pulled off the scrap heap: Chicken, Here’s Your Coupe!
In 1938, the Saratogian noted a bit of irony: near Schuylerville, on a treacherous stretch of road, the highway department had erected a warning sign — and an Albany truck driver “ran into the sign, badly bending it.” Hard to say which was worse — his reading or his driving.
Finally, to the left of this paragraph is a road sign (click on it for a better view) I encountered while driving (OK, pretend driving on Google Maps) in Canada. Any idea what it means? I had none either, but click through the pictures on the site to learn what the Dark Tickle Experience is all about. For what the term itself actually means, visit their About Us page.
Photos: a popular, humorous Posted sign; headline, the Saratogian (1938); Google Maps street-view image