Manufacturer of America’s Finest Historic Markers
Ninety years ago, using cast aluminum was unheard of to make historical plaques. Bronze, wood and ferrous metals were primarily used, but none of these were practical for the long term. Bronze was too expensive, ferrous metals were subject to rust and wood could not stand up to the elements.
The lack of practical materials made the value of a widespread marker program questionable. Rather than invest in something which could prove more of a liability than an asset, the state and local historical societies confined their activities to research and compiling data. History was being preserved but not publicly shared. That was all about to change.
Aluminum was used in Mr. Hawes’ foundry on a small scale. It was known to be light-weight, inexpensive, and corrosion resistant; all the desirable qualities for use in making markers. Little was known of the use of aluminum alloys in the casting of large thin sections containing detail, but no one had made an effort to do any research or work on the possibility. Mr. Hawes was convinced it could be done. After 18 months of testing, Hawes revealed sample aluminum castings he felt could be the solution.
Now he faced a second challenge. No one made pattern letters in both cases smaller than one inch. Hawes announced a cash prize for a letter design, and entries were made by several well-known hand-lettering artists. He chose the winner, a derivative of the old Caslin Font, made a few changes, and invented the Sewah script.
About 1929, the Ohio Revolutionary Trail Commission wanted plaques to mark the Old Revolutionary Trail throughout the state. Because cast aluminum was so new, the Commission was skeptical about the new innovation’s durability. It took all the resourcefulness at his command for Hawes to persuade the commission to at least look and consider the idea.
When the appointed day arrived for the delegates to view the samples, Hawes handed each one a sledgehammer, the perfect tool to test the quality. The markers were bent, dented, and scarred, but none broke and every letter was still legible. The Commission was won over and agreed the Sewah marker was what they had been looking for. This initial project involved 110 large markers and some 400 smaller ones. These markers were the first of the thousands of roadside historical markers that are now seen throughout the United States.
The outbreak of World War II called a halt to all major operations of this kind. Only a very small of amount of metal was available for non-essential use, and the number of marker installations during this period was very slight. Even after the war ended, it was several years before restrictions were removed on material allotments.
About 1948, the situation was considerably better and once more historical groups began to show activity throughout the country. The Council of State Garden Clubs started a program honoring those who served in the defense of our country. These Blue Star markers were identical except for the signature line of the local club sponsoring the plaque. They quickly spread to every state in the Union, the most widespread marker system to date.
From 1949 to 1952, more traveling was being done than ever before in the history of this country. Each of the 50 states was doing its upmost to entice vacationers by making highways as attractive as possible. A study had proven that informative and interesting markers was one of the surest ways of achieving this goal. The value of marking historical sites was widely recognized and a large number of states adopted such programs. Cast aluminum was now the accepted standard and was specified by the states’ programs. Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Florida, Washington and Kansas all started long term projects.
Back when war time shortages had made doing business as usual more difficult, Sewah started creating their markers in concrete. However, since history was being made overseas, consumers saw little need to commemorate history stateside. Mr. Hawes was forced to take a job at a propeller factory, where he met Gerald E. Smith.
Hawes retired in 1953 and sold the company to Smith. Smith hired his brother-in-law, Lloyd Thomas, to handle pattern-making and sales while he oversaw production. They moved the factory to its current location and a new plant was constructed in 1959.
Up to the 1980s, the plant employed less than ten people. In 1991, Gerald’s son, David, took over. In 2000, Sewah was asked to deliver over two hundred Ohio Bicentennial markers to be erected in every county of Ohio. Production increased thru 2003 with twenty-four employees and topping one million sales.
In 2003, David’s son, Brad, assumed management of the company. Today, with over twenty-two employees Sewah produces more than twelve hundred markers per year with sales in excess of two million.