60-year-old business to leave Cassville's Main Street

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Gary Corn, owner of Corn Signs, stands in front of his business, which his father, Kenneth, started in 1947, and is set to be demolished sometime after Sept. 1 by Mercy Hospital and Clinic to enlarge the parking lot. Julia Kilmer reporter@cassville-democrat.com

Corn Signs left mark on Cassville's business history

Corn Signs has been a part of the Cassville business landscape for over 60 years, located at 90 Main St., just across from Ramey Supermarket.

But, in just a few months, the business will only be remembered in history.

Gary Corn, owner of Corn Signs, looks at a portrait his father painted long ago of his sister Gail Brown as a little girl, in the doorway of his shop. Julia Kilmer reporter@cassville-democrat.com

Sometime after Sept. 1, Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, which

purchased the property from owner Gary Corn, will be demolishing the family business, which was established in 1947, and the home belonging to his parents, which sits next to it.

Gary Corn had never planned on taking over the family business.

He was born in Cassville in 1953, and graduated from Cassville High School in 1971. After graduation, he attended a year of college at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

"I had no trouble making the grades but didn't know what I wanted to do," Corn said. "My dad was a borderline diabetic at the time and had a hard time adjusting to the changes with his diet. I took off for the summer and helped with the business, and when summer was over, dad said, aAren't you going back to school?'

"When I came back to help out, I was getting a paycheck. I didn't go back to school that fall, and I've been here ever since. Next thing I knew, several years went by."

In 1981, Corn got married and started a family. He and his wife, Renea, had three daughters, Desiree, Chelsea an Keisha.

"I really think the good Lord has led me in different things like in meeting my wife," Corn said. "Life was stagnant. I wasn't really improving in my situation. Years were going by."

Corn said what led him to ultimately decide to sell the property was his sister Gail's health. He wanted to have time to be able to help her.

Over the years, Corn and his father, Kenneth, who started the business in 1947, worked together making all types of signs for individuals and businesses.

"My dad had a God-given talent, Gary Corn said. "He was always doodling or drawing on something."

Kenneth Corn was born in 1918 in Barry County, and graduated from Fairview High School, where John Q. Hammons was one of his classmates. From 1941-1945, he served in the Army in special services, tearing down sound systems for USO shows. Later, he worked on scenery on movie sets in California. In 1947, he opened Kenneth Corn Commercial Art Studio in Wheaton, and in 1950, he married Ethlyn Duncan in Fairview. A few years later, he moved his family and business to Cassville.

Gary Corn said his father designed billboards, political signs, bumper stickers, lettering for trucks, windows, and painted baptistries for several area church altars. Some of area signs and billboards he designed included the John Hancock Dinner House, Manley Courts, and the Fields' Photo Logo at the Barry County Museum. Corn painted over 2,000 names of area World War II veterans on a wall in the Barry County courthouse, signs for local churches, hotels, and theaters, and a portrait of his daughter, Gail Brown, that Gary Corn is particularly proud of. He made paper mache monsters for Glen Hall's Theatre, which included a gorilla for the premiere of "Might Joe Young" in 1949. As a five year-old, he began painting with oil paints.

A sign that still sits in the lobby of the business and was his father's motto that reads, "God owns my business, I just work here."

"He was always interested in figuring out how to do something to see if he could do it," Gary Corn said.

Kenneth Corn was also very involved in his community and well-known as Santa's special assistant in the Cassville area for nearly 47 years, handing out candy to children in the Christmas parades, at the Barry County Courthouse and Cassville City Hall.

Gary Corn, owner of Corn Signs, works in his shop and on an In God We Trust sign a customer ordered. Julia Kilmer reporter@cassville-democrat.com

"Dad was big on lettering," Gary Corn said. "He grew up with hand lettering. I can remember on Saturdays as a kid, he'd sit out there, and it was first-come, first-served, but he'd sit out there and letter the name and gross weight on the side of one truck after another. But now, its gotten away from that and is more commercialized, like putting USDOT on the trucks for the weight.

"He would do the layout, and I helped with the lettering. I'd help with blowing up emblems. He'd let me put it in the projector then blow it up. I was there more to help carry the paints and supplies and keep him awake. He'd be so tired. I can honestly say getting to work with my dad and being there for my parents made it feel like it was natural."

One of the things Gary said he enjoyed most was just being with his dad doing the billboards.

But they didn't always see eye to eye.

"We didn't always agree on things," he said. "We used to be called Sanford and Son because of that, like the father and son on the TV show. But, that's just like any relationship."

Due to his father's declining health including complications from diabetes, Gary Corn eventually took over the business, carrying on the family tradition and continuing to design and create a variety of signage for customers. In 2001, Kenneth Corn died from congestive heart failure.

Some of the things he remembers his father taught him about the business were designs, and colors that go good together

"Those are things I call, 'the tricks of the trade,'" he said.

He recalled how on many occasions, customers remembered his dad and jobs he did for them.

"Customers would say, 'I remember when your dad painted so and so for me,'" he said.

Over the years, Corn said one of the things he has enjoyed most in business is getting to meet new people, new businesses and having repeat business from customers he's had for years.

Working with signs hasn't always been easy, or safe though. Heights, electricity, weather, and other factors have been part of the job.

"Until you get a few screws in to hold up a panel, you may be in an awkward position," he said. "Some will [help], some won't."

He recalls other jobs when he had to work with dynamite.

"I was working at Eagle Rock and had to use dynamite just to get a post in the ground for a sign because of all the rocks," he said.

Gary Corn remembers one time in particular when he got shocked. A customer called him to fix an electrical problem on a sign at the bridge in Cassville.

Gary Corn, owner of Corn Signs, works on a sign in his shop. Julia Kilmer reporter@cassville-democrat.com

"The sign had a short," he said. "I told the owner to turn off the power. I had my ladder on the creek side so I could get to it. But the waitress from the business didn't know what was going on, saw that the sign was off and turned it back on. I reached up to check a socket and bam. I flew off the ladder backwards onto the ground about 20 feet."

Another time, he said he and his dad went out to paint a billboard that was black and white, and clear some brush from underneath the sign.

"I'd just got up the ladder and opened my can of black paint. I had set the ladder on some rotted wood, it gave way, and I had black paint over my whole body," he said. "People were stopping to ask if I was ok. It ruined my clothes. I had to go back and get different clothes."

Corn said he has seen a lot of changes and businesses come and go over the years, and has learned a lot from being in business so long.

"One thing I think that's helped is if you have income coming in," he said. "Once you get the billboards up, it helps you out. I think it's been hard on some of the other businesses that have come and gone. Things don't stay the same. There's getting to be more and more competition all the time.

"Also, just staying with it and treating people the way I'd like to be treated. And, if for some reason I couldn't finish a job on time I'd try to be truthful about it. Those are some of the things that have helped me."

He also noticed that business has changed a lot from how it used to be.

"My dad would ask for a minimum order of 100 posters, but now, companies ask for a minimum of 250 or more, but if you're buying a bigger amount, you get a better deal," he said. "Nowadays, lettering is not hand-painted, it's done with vinyls where you peel the lettering off the back and stick it onto things."

Corn said having his parents' home next to the business gave him the chance to check up on his mother.

"Being that close, I had the security of checking on her because she was next door," he said.

His mother, Ethlyn Corn, died about two-and-a-half years ago.

"My mom was the backbone of the family," he said. "My dad would tell you if there was anything he had in life it was because of her. She did the bookwork for the business, the house work, and it was my mom who always figured things, and she never complained. She was a good lady.

"My mom would be the type to get groceries for friends and their prescriptions, and never ask a dime for it."

Later, she had a stroke which she recovered from, and Gary recalls that Mercy Hospital treated her well during that time.

"We really thought Mercy deserved the first chance at the property. We always knew they wanted it," he said.

Corn said his faith is another reason the business has stuck around so long while others have come and gone.

"I feel like that's why I've got a business," he said. "When I get discouraged or when things have been slow, I'd get a call or order. We all have our hard times, but He's helped me through every bit of it. We all need Him in our lives."

Corn said he really doesn't know how he will feel to see the business and home that's been in his family for so many years go.

"I've never had to face that," he said, "But, I do know things happen. Since we've always had the property, I don't know what it will be like. I know things don't stay the same. But, I feel like I'm ready for a new chapter of my life."

Corn said he will have a lot of support when the time comes, from family, friends, customers and the community.

"I've had a lot of people tell me they won't watch when they tear it down," he said.

Corn says he might be present when the property, which include the business and his parents' previous home next to it, are cleared by Mercy Hospital to enlarge their parking area.

"I think I might be there but I don't know," he said. "I'll leave if it gets hard."

As for closing one chapter and starting another, Corn doesn't plan on retiring any time soon. He still plans to operate Corn Signs, just on a more limited basis. Customers can still reach him at 417-847-2495.

"I will still do what I can but on a little more limited basis," he said. "Life goes on."

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