When the sign popped up for sale at an antique shop in Levittown, Bucks County, it was hundreds of miles from home and had not been seen in decades.
The marker — a cast iron sign in the keystone shape associated with Pennsylvania — was for West Lebanon, an unincorporated community in Young Township, Indiana County.
Not to be confused with historical markers, which are placed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission about people, places and events in state history, Keystone Markers are historic signs that were installed in the 1920s and ’30s on numbered roads by the Pennsylvania Department of Highways. The signs gave the town name, distance to the next town and some tidbits of information such as how the town was named.
But the West Lebanon marker disappeared years ago, somewhere around 1999 or 2000, according to Jack Graham, a member of the nonprofit, volunteer group Keystone Marker Trust.
“Its whereabouts for the next two decades was unknown,” Graham said. “Was it taken by someone who intended to sell it for scrap metal? Was it taken by someone with a connection to West Lebanon? We will never know.”
What the members of the Keystone Marker Trust do know is that it was for sale a long way from home, and it was a mystery how it got there, discovered in the shop by a volunteer with the trust.
The trust representative purchased the sign from the dealer, who said he had purchased it at an auction.
While the signs go missing, it’s not usually because they are stolen, Graham said.
They are heavy — with the signs weighing nearly 70 pounds and the post about 300 pounds — and “cast iron is not worth hauling to the junkyard,” Graham said.
Rather, vehicles are usually to blame.
“The snowplow is the biggest predator of these signs in Pennsylvania,” Graham said.
Graham said many times the signs are found in private hands, usually because they have been knocked over by a vehicle and picked up by someone. Other times, they are found tucked away in the corner of a municipal building, long forgotten.
“In most cases, people who have them probably saved them from being lost,” Graham said.
After discovering and obtaining the West Lebanon marker, the group sent it to the Franklin County Career and Technology Center in Chambersburg, where it was refurbished and repainted.
Graham worked to find someone from West Lebanon or Young Township about reinstalling it, and his research led him to Jim and Cassi Velesig, of West Lebanon.
Jim has lived near the marker his whole life, as it was positioned on a right-of-way alongside the home where he lives with wife Cassi.
As best they can recall, they discovered it missing around 2000.
“It was really disappointing when we discovered it was gone,” Cassi said. “You just look and say, ‘Oh, who would do that? Why?’” she said.
Thinking it was stolen, they called the police. But with no witnesses, there wasn’t much that could be done.
“We figured it ended up in a junkyard, to be honest with you,” Jim said.
Jim said their son Joe, who has an interest in local history, was actually looking into getting another one made before the original was returned. Before they could, they were contacted about the original sign being discovered.
“You can imagine how excited we were to hear,” Cassi said. “It’s back home again. It’s good.”
“It’s a neat sign,” Jim said. “After we put it up, it looks like it belongs here.”
When the sign went missing, the Velesigs removed the post for safekeeping.
“Just by luck, we decided we should keep it,” Cassi said.
The sign — which is double-sided unlike most of the others in Pennsylvania — was reinstalled near the end of October, back on the original post.
The family was “very, very pleased” with the work and research provided by the Keystone Marker Trust, Cassi said.
For Graham, his interest in the signs started decades ago, when he worked for the state parks system.
As he traveled around Pennsylvania, he would see the signs, write down what they said, then throw the notes in a drawer. When he retired, there were nearly 300 cards with sign information.
He started making a database, and found some others with similar interest.
They joined forces and formed the nonprofit, volunteer Keystone Marker Trust group, “dedicated to the preservation, restoration and re-creation of Pennsylvania’s iconic Keystone Marker signs.”
The group maintains an online database of the signs at keystonemarkertrust.org and has information on more than 800 of the markers across Pennsylvania.
Sometimes, the markers bring “interesting little mysteries,” Graham said.
There was one for Mechanicsburg, but in Indiana County.
Mechanicsburg is long gone now, according to Graham, and has a new name: Brush Valley.
“Oftentimes, we will find a post standing along the road and the sign is gone,” Graham said. “To where it went, who knows?”
Sometimes, it’s hidden in the back corner of a municipal building.
Other times, signs are in private ownership and people are “very possessive” of them.
“We try to encourage those people to return it to the town if the town wants them,” Graham said. “Some towns don’t want to be bothered.”
The trust, with a core group of six, encourages local adoption and maintenance of the signs.
They also work to have the signs refurbished, with most of the members having personally restored or repaired several.
Broken ones are welded back together at a machine shop. An auto body dealer helps replaces missing corners with fiberglass. Signs are repainted and restored to their former glory.
The group is also working to find a foundry to make authentic replicas but so far have been unsuccessful.
In Indiana County, the group reports that there are one or more markers still standing in 14 other towns.
“Some of these have been restored by trust volunteers, but many are in great need of care if they are to remain much longer,” Graham said.
The signs are located in Clarksburg, Cookport, Dixonville, Elders Ridge, Glen Campbell, Homer City, Locust, Pine Flats, Plumville, Rochester Mills, Rossiter, Shelocta, Smicksburg and Smithport.
The markers at Clarksburg, Elders Ridge and Smithport have been restored. Markers in 13 other Indiana County towns are “long gone,” Graham said.
“The ones here today may not be there tomorrow,” Graham said.
Ron Kuzemchak, of Indiana, has been involved as a “spotter” for the Keystone Marker Trust for about 10 years.
In his role, he is responsible for visiting the signs in Indiana County periodically to document their condition and report back to the group.
Kuzemchak got involved because of his own passionate interest in history.
“It’s part of history,” he said. “They’re a part of our past that we’re trying to maintain.”
“Once you know about them, you see them all over the place,” Graham said. “There’s an amazing number of them out there,” Graham said.
For more information about the Keystone Marker Trust, email firstname.lastname@example.org.