Finding fingerboard signs a lifelong passion for Seven Persons native

Devin Drozdz’s search for AMA / CAA “fingerboard” signs has taken him all across the province. Unfortunately, the signs he finds often no longer have the fingers in place, such as this one he found in Aug. 2019 in the M.D. of Pincher Creek, southwest of Head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump, at the intersection of Hwy. 785 and Twp. Rd. 84 (The Sheep Camp Road). – Photo courtesy of Devin Drozdz

A Seven Persons native’s passion for old road signage has led him to preserve the past, while pointing the way to his future.

Devin Drozdz, 22, developed a fascination for “fingerboard signs”, the once ubiquitous green arrows featuring the names of locales past and present found along the highways and by-ways of Alberta, as a youth growing up west of Medicine Hat.

Drozdz recalled it was his job to serve as the navigator on family road trips, and to read the maps and make sure they were on the right track.

“As a kid, I can remember seeing these fingerboard signs around and being fascinated by them.  There really is nothing else like it,” he explained.

The first of the province’s fingerboard signs were installed almost a century ago, as motorists took to Alberta’s rudimentary road network armed with sketched maps, and the hope their vintage era roadsters would get them where they wanted to go. The Alberta Motor Association began installing road markers in the late ‘20s, and as late as 2001 there were reportedly 1500 of the iconic green arrows pointing the way to places across the province as part of the AMA’s Rural Road Signage program.

In several instances, these signs at lonely country crossroads serve as the only visible reminder of rural communities and institutions, such as former one room schools or community halls, that have been lost to time. 

“They come from a time [when] travelling was about the journey, not about getting to where you need to go as fast as you can.  In contrast to signs of today, in order to read a fingerboard, you have to stop to read it, they require attention,” Drozdz added.

“Which is why it’s sad to see so many of them either destroyed or in a pretty poor state of disrepair.” 

Central Alberta fingerboard sign, photo courtesy of Devin Drozdz.

According to Drozdz, about roughly half of these wayfinding aids remain today. He reports most are in varying states of deterioration, with several hundred having disappeared completely from rural intersections Alberta-wide.

Inspired to preserve these signs of a time before GPS and Google Maps, Drozdz began cataloguing all the locations he could locate during the summer of 2018, hoping to raise awareness about these relics. To aid him in his search, he acquired a list from the AMA of about 800 sign locations that were confirmed as existing as of March 2009.

“Initially, I didn’t think that there would be as many remaining as there are. But when I reached out to [AMA] to see if they had any sort of database of these signs, I was delighted to see so many on the list,” Drozdz added.

Having had the opportunity to travel throughout the province for work and internships, he was able to visit locations where fingerboard signage was believed to exist, taking photographs when possible, while using Google Street View to verify other locations.

He began posting photos and descriptions of the locations he found on an online message board, AA Roads Forum. Later, Drozdz created an interactive online map detailing the locations of fingerboards erected by the Alberta Motor Association, along with details pertaining to their condition, and whether they remain in their original location.

“I’d like readers to appreciate something that people may see everyday on the roads of Alberta,” he said, “but seldom get appreciated.”

– Devin Drozdz

Complicating matters somewhat is the existence of older signage, green or white in colour, which were not part of the AMA database. According to Drozdz, these signs are usually found within the Special Areas, and have not been included within the information he received.

“{Google Street View} does not cover much of the Special Areas, so I’m certain that there’s some I cannot see,” he added.

Ultimately, Drozdz is hoping to gather at least one photo of each fingerboard signage site in Alberta. 

“I have made great progress so far, but most of the remaining ones are too far away for me to do in a day trip, so it’ll be slower going from now on. 

“Just more time for them to disappear, unfortunately.”

Drozdz’s love of maps and road trips has endured a lifetime and has led him to pursue a career in civil engineering at the University of Calgary, a program he’ll be graduating from at the end of 2020.

“In my future career, I hope to get on either with a municipality or maybe Alberta Transportation, to work on road improvement projects and transportation system upgrades,” explained Drozdz. “I’ll be ‘making the maps’, in a sense.”

Southern Alberta fingerboard sign, photo courtesy of Devin Drozdz.

His drive to preserve the past has also led him to seek out digital scans of official Government of Alberta Provincial highways maps from 1973 to 1979. 

“1973 was when the three-digit secondary highways were first introduced, and some have been decommissioned by now, {so} I am trying to track down {those} as well,” Drozdz added. “If a fingerboard sits on a road that used to be a highway, I make notes of that.”

Drozdz welcomes readers to visit aaroads.com and his Alberta CAA Fingerboards map on Google Maps to view his photos and location descriptions. He also invites the public to submit pictures of signs past and present, along with any information they can provide related to when they were installed, to t[email protected].

“I’d like readers to appreciate something that people may see everyday on the roads of Alberta,” he said, “but seldom get appreciated.”

Central Alberta fingerboard sign, photo courtesy of Devin Drozdz.

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