Your Sheep Are All Counted: A Roadside Archeology of South of the Border Billboards
By P.J. Capelotti
Whitman Publishing, 2022, 2022
Hardcover, 272 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Frank Brusca

A recent trip from New England to Florida brought back memories of 1960s journeys between Maryland and Florida on Routes 1 and 301. My parents introduced my four siblings and me to South of the Border billboards to pass the time and encouraged us to look for the next sign. It was a great way to entertain us even though we rarely stopped at the famed tourist attraction except to buy fireworks.

“Someone should catalog the SoB billboards,” I mused on my recent trip. “That would make for a fascinating book.” And archeologist P.J. Capelotti has done just that. Your Sheep Are All Counted is a retrospective of one of the most spectacular and successful outdoor advertising campaigns ever staged. Over the past 75 years, SoB’s clever and orthodox advertising campaign by founder Alan Schafer transformed a tiny beer stand into a significant tourist attraction. Capelotti’s richly-illustrated tome draws upon hundreds of black and white and full-color photographs from SoB’s advertising archive and roadside photographers such as John Margolies.

Your Sheep… focuses almost entirely on the billboard campaign, and very little attention is given to anything else related to SoB. The book’s chapters, which are titled Exits, cover the history of the billboards, recurring themes, sign technologies, placement, and maintenance. We learn about the company and crews employed to erect and care for the signs and how billboard appendages were designed and executed.

Capelotti covers the origins of the billboard campaign, which used odd-shaped pylon roadside signs that resembled mirrored outline maps of Vermont. The book covers how Shafer, a master punster, hand designed all the billboards employing Groucho-like wordplay, a distinctive font and color scheme, and billboard add-ons such as miles-to-go indicators and sombrero cutouts. Some of the fascinating coverage in the book is of the mechanical billboards that used clocks, turntables, rotating sheep, and even old cars mounted to the oversized signs.

To Schafer, the billboard content was everything. He was unapologetic about using the racist Pedro character, Mexican-Speak, and other questionable content. But, to him, they were all jokes—even if others found the billboards offensive.

The book provides an account of the evolution and gradual disappearance of the offensive Pedro mascot. Capelotti even hints that, in time, Pedro will disappear entirely. The book also covers themes Shafer used that would be considered questionable at best or even blatantly offensive by today’s standards. For example, many early billboards cashed in on topics of the Confederacy (Shafer was also the brains behind the short-lived theme park, Confederateland, USA). Yet, SoB’s motel and restaurant welcomed African- American patrons starting in the mid-1960s. During the heady 1970s, for example, Shafer enjoyed using sexual innuendos in his billboards (Pedro Swings, The Customer Always Comes First, Sleep with Pedro Tonight, Entering the Pleasure Zone), but over time, they disappeared from the landscape. Capelotti also doesn’t shy away from one of Schafer’s ill-fated billboard designs that encouraged rape.

According to the book, when Alan Shafer died in 2001, SoB remained in the Shafer family, and the billboards began to change. In some ways, the newer billboards attempt to atone for past transgressions. (Shafer must be rolling in his grave.) For example, Mexican-Speak has been dropped, and many billboards adopted topical themes borrowed from popular songs, movies, TV shows, and even restaurant competitors. One recent billboard even made a nod to the LGBTQ community.

While many people cry foul at billboards (including this reviewer), the book explains in great detail how Schaffer ignored most principles of outdoor advertising and transformed the medium into an art form. Capelloti likens the billboard campaign to folk art, perhaps the largest endeavor of the medium ever undertaken. Moreover, the book covers the evolving nature of the attraction’s advertising.

One item barely covered by the book was the monumental transition of the billboard campaign from the older numbered U.S. Routes (such as Routes 301 and 501) to the newer Interstate Highway System. Such a switch would have been the death knell for most roadside attractions and outdoor advertisers, but Shafer and SoB took it in stride, and the newest Interstate billboards still survive.

Frank Brusca is a retired IT professional who now writes about roadside topics.

This book review originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Spring 2023, Vol. 41, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

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