A giant Olympia Beer logo with the iconic horseshoe and “It’s the Water” slogan adorned the world-famous brewery for more than 30 years.
The sign came down in 1999 when Miller Brewing took over the site. Near the end of Miller’s run and the brewery’s permanent closure in 2003, the old metal sign was given to the city of Tumwater in a handshake deal — and has been rusting away inside an abandoned barn ever since.
However, a minor criminal case has recently called attention to the long-forgotten sign that once overlooked Interstate 5.
Tumwater native Gabe Harrison learned about the sign’s location last year and has set out to preserve what he calls a symbol of local heritage. He said the sign has the potential to become a landmark similar to the 12-foot neon “R” that sits atop the old Rainier Brewery in Seattle.
“This is a one-of-a-kind sign,” Harrison said. “I couldn’t believe you could just find it rotting.”
Tumwater officials moved the Olympia Beer sign Tuesday, only days after a reporter visited the barn and inquired about the sign’s ownership.
The barn sits with doors wide open in the 1400 block of Linwood Avenue near a stormwater retention pond and a gravel walking trail. Beer cans litter the interior along with excrement from bats that fly overhead, even in the morning.
The golden sign is divided into four sections of intricately shaped sheet metal, weighing hundreds of pounds apiece and covered with rusty patches. All assembled, the entire sign would measure about 16 feet tall and 22 feet wide.
Harrison’s passion for the sign got him into trouble with Tumwater police in January 2014. He is fighting misdemeanor charges for trespassing and attempted theft at the barn, with a trial set for Wednesday. Harrison maintains that he and a friend had been checking out the sign, which would have been too heavy to steal.
“His intentions have always been to restore the sign,” said attorney Jackson Millikan, who is representing Harrison.
Millikan wants to see the sign restored for the public’s sake. He has been trying to track down information on the sign’s history and questions whether the city of Tumwater is the rightful owner. He argues that the sign belonged to Miller and was part of the property sold by the company in 2004, according to a letter from the company.
“Either the city is harboring something stolen, or it was abandoned,” he said. “Cities don’t make handshake deals.”
Apparently, however, the city did strike such a deal for the sign. City administrator John Doan said Tumwater has no formal record of owning the sign.
“It was the final days of Miller and someone called then-Mayor (Ralph) Osgood and asked if we wanted it,” Doan said. “There wasn’t much paperwork going on.”
Doan confirmed that the city has moved the sign to a “secure and dry location,” noting that the barn “wasn’t a good long-term solution.” Doan would not disclose the new location.
The city is interested in exploring the sign’s possibilities, Doan said. Even if the sign were restored, the city would need to find a place to display it.
“We’re hanging on to it in hopes that somebody has a wall to put it on,” Doan said. “At this point, we’re in no position to sell it.”
Paul Knight, who retired as brewmaster in 1997, remembers when the Olympia Beer sign was first installed in 1967. The sign was seen by everyone who drove past the landmark brewery, which Knight describes as “a piece of history that went away and will never come back.”
“It’d be great if it could be restored and displayed in a proper location,” Knight said of the sign. “It’d be nice if it went back on the same building.”