Iconic Schneiders sign returns to Highway 401 with a new “lasting” shine

WATERLOO AREA – The iconic Schneiders sign has returned to its post along Highway 401 with a little more sparkle for the holiday season.

For over 60 years, the sign has proven to be a “Wiener Beacon” for weary travelers from Toronto returning home to the area.

It was pulled from its perch in October for a renovation project, much to the dismay of many onlookers who feared the ensign’s days were numbered.

The sign has since resurfaced, sporting a whole new ‘sustainable’ look.

“Indeed, our brand is brighter than ever,” said Janet Riley, spokesperson for Maple Leaf Foods. “We understand that the work being done on our Schneiders sign along the 401 has been of concern to some people, but it has definitely been improved, just in time for the holidays. The sign lights have been replaced with new LED lights which will use less energy and be more durable.

The sign’s focus means the local beacon will shine even brighter to signal residents of the Waterloo region that you are “almost home,” she said.

The original version of the 17-meter-high sign – which sits next to Highway 401 at Highway 6 near Guelph – was first lit on March 20, 1961.

It was a different sign at the time, with the name of the Kitchener meat plant in big red neon letters. Underneath was the line “Famous For Quality Meats”, with a second message of “Kitchener 12 miles” underneath, and an arrow pointing the way.

Eventually, it was reconstructed to add the famous face of “Dutch Girl” – known to many as “Nancy”, named after model Nancy Featherstone-McLean, on which the image was based. She was only nine when she was selected to become the face of the Schneider brand through a modeling agency, with her blonde locks and beaming smile meant to symbolize the Pennsylvania Dutch origins of the many farmers who supplied the company’s cattle.

The sign was built by Claude Neon, a Toronto-based company, and has been refurbished several times over the years. In an unveiling of its upgrade in 1980, local dignitaries cut a ribbon of smoked sausages in place of a traditional groundbreaking ceremony.

While newer versions of the sign used scrolling email messages to grab the attention of travelers, the original sign featured huge wooden letters that had to be physically altered to display different messages.

When the Schneider plant announced it was closing in 2011 – the last employees left the plant for the last time in 2015 – Maple Leaf Foods announced it would not be removing the sign.

Members of the Schneider family have agreed to sell Schneider Corp. to Smithfield Foods after its big competitor Maple Leaf Foods attempted a hostile take-over bid. Maple Leaf eventually bought Schneiders from Smithfield Foods in 2004.

In an interview with the Waterloo Region Record in 2011, Doug Dodds, director of strategy at Maple Leaf, said the brand is going to stay where it is, doing what it has done for the past 50 years.

“(Relocating it) was never, ever considered,” he said.

The sign is too valuable as a marketing tool, he said, despite the company’s decision to end the company’s 120-year history in Kitchener and cut 1,200 jobs.

“The brand is there to support the brand. Schneider products are made in a number of communities, not only in the region, but also across Canada, ”he said.

A decade later, and six decades after its first erection, the Ensign’s absence in October has not gone unnoticed, social media ablaze with concern over whether the Ensign has seen its final days.

“Everyone on the Schneiders and Maple Leaf team is really happy that this sign has remained a bit of a local treasure since it was built in 1961,” said Riley.

“We got a lot of questions when we started working on it, which really showed the community’s affection for him. We intend to take good care of it so that the community can benefit from it in the long run.

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