Leelanau News and Events

The Peninsula’s Unofficial Sign Painter Keeps It Old School

By Ross Boissoneau | July 27, 2020

His work often happens quietly, in the background, but it broadcasts itself around every corner of the peninsula.

There’s the iconic “Mail Pouch Tobacco” recreated on the side of the Wellman farm barn on Lakeshore Drive. And those classic business signs with an unmistakable vintage “Up North” look: at North Country Grill, the Village Inn, Bahle’s, Cherry Republic...

They are handcrafted by Cedar’s own Dennis Gerathy.

The 78-year-old sign maker just completed a commission on the glass front door of Bahle’s in Suttons Bay, on a hot July day, with a small gathering of sidewalk onlookers. Most people are incredulous that he creates his signs without benefit of stencils or purchased letterforms, crafting each line, each letter, by hand.

“He has a compass and a wax marker and he freehands it,” says Stacy Sheren, the buyer and general manager for Bahle’s. “People don’t hand-paint signs anymore, but there’s still a market, especially with a store like ours,” Sheren says of the clothier, a fixture in Suttons Bay since Lars Bahle opened a small dry goods store in town in 1876.

Gerathy got his foot in the door as a sign painter at Tiger Stadium in 1983, he tells the Leelanau Ticker. “I was painting a wall across the street.” His work was noticed, and soon he was painting concession signs inside the stadium. Quite a treat for a fan who saw his first game at Briggs Stadium 1954 when his grandmother took him see the team on bat day. “They gave me a badge and I got in anytime.” That’s including the following year, when the Tigers celebrated a World Championship. “I was there the night they won the World Series,” he recalls.

Since then, Gerathy has painted his way across the state, making classic and commemorative signs from Detroit to Mackinac Island. He’s the artist behind the signage for iconic businesses such as Chippewa Hotel on Mackinac Island and Cherry Republic in Leelanau County.

“Dennis has played such an important role in the growth of Cherry Republic over the years,” says Andrew Moore, director of marketing. Today, the company’s motto of “Life, Liberty, Beaches and Pie” has been rendered by Gerathy’s hand at every one of their stores.

Cherry Republic President Bob Sutherland says, “Dennis did our first sign 27 years ago. It was for our first store, but his sign was made to look old, like we’ve been around 50 years. He has done hundreds ever since.”

“When he first did signs for us, he lived downstate," Sutherland adds. "We’d talk on the phone, and he’d ship them. But we really got rolling and became friends when he moved to Cedar. I don’t know what Leelanau would have been if Dennis would have never moved north.  His signs are everywhere. He is everywhere. His positive spirit is everywhere.”

They share the common thread of humor, says Sutherland: “I love funny sayings and we’ve teamed up to lift so many spirits and create so many laughs.”

Case in point, Sutherland shares this zinger: “This company is owned by a simpleton — selling more than one fruit would be too complicated.”

And of course doing things the old-fashioned way means Gerathy is ultra-conscientious. He adds, jokingly: “in 500 signs, he has spelled 'chery' right every time.”

But with the high visibility of his work, the humblebrag is not part of Gerathy’s vocabulary. He says, “I love what I do. To whom much is given, much is required. I give all the glory to God.”

And it’s fitting given the throwback nature of Gerathy’s endeavors that he remains firmly fixed in the past: No smartphone, no website, eschewing the virtual world as best he can in favor of more personal contact. “I’m a true supporter of the United States Postal Service,” he says. “I love to write letters, send packages. I decorate the envelopes.”

He does, however, have a simply hand-painted sign on the side of his cherry-red pickup truck: “Dennis Gerathy, Old School Sign Painter, 231-228-4024.”

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