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Wisconsin welcome gets two thumbs up

DIAMOND BLUFF -- When most people see positive results from the use of a thumb along a highway, their first thought is a hitchhiker has gotten a ride.

But those encountering the state's "Wisconsin Welcomes You" sign along Highway 63 between Hager City and Red Wing can view the product of a pair of green thumbs.

A flower garden occupying the sign's base is being cared for by Lawrence and Marlys Thomas of Diamond Bluff.

"It's a way of giving back," Thomas said Thursday, modestly pointing out he and his wife aren't the only public servants in the sign's vicinity, as bicyclist Roger Hall keeps the roadsides there clear of trash practically year-round.

The Thomases stay quite busy with their sign beautification project during the entire growing season.

Starting around two weeks before Memorial Day, they plant approximately three dozen flowers in a bed built with the sign when it was installed around 1960, Thomas estimated.

The state pays for the plants they arrange: a mix of marigolds, pansies, hollyhocks, zinnias and others, as the climate dictates.

Then, the couple spends the rest of the warm-weather months trucking water for the colorful floral display to its site, sometimes as often as every two-to-three days.

"We try to incorporate this with trips we'd make to Red Wing anyway," Lawrence said, mentioning high gas prices.

Last year, the Pierce County Highway Department got the state to fund the cost of replacement dirt around the sign, Thomas said. The bagged dirt has reduced the amount of weeds in the bed considerably. So besides watering the flowers and occasionally stirring the dirt up a bit, it's mainly a matter of snipping the buds back for the gardeners, once the plants are in.

When Lawrence began sign-flower-garden duty 20 or more years ago, it was as a highway department employee.

He was hired by the county in 1981 for the department's maintenance crew, to plow snow and mow grass. He also did some flagging at road work locations.

Originally, he was stationed at Ellsworth and had to commute from his Diamond Bluff home. Eventually, his "beat" was changed to the Maiden Rock area and finally, in 1987, to where he's lived since 1977.

"I could walk to work," he said, referring to the highway shop just blocks away. He retired from the department in May of 2007.

The Hinckley, Minn., native said he followed his father's occupation as a construction worker. The family moved for his dad's job from Minnesota to Illinois for awhile before ending up in the Red Wing area when the High Bridge was built.

The sign was put up around the time of that opening, Lawrence said and is maintained by having its posts stained and letters painted yellow on a regular schedule.

In retirement, Thomas has continued a volunteer commitment to the sign's floral accompaniment. He's joined in the effort by his wife, Marlys, a Plum City native he married five years ago. Marlys brings along a significant measure of gardening skills.

That was evidenced last week by a flower garden he began earlier in the back yard of the home they now share, which has expanded since she arrived to include a trellis, decorative fixtures, welcome banner and a wide variety of eye-catching growth.

Patrol Supt. Alan Thoner of the highway department said last week the Thomases are being recognized for their contribution at the state's welcoming sign through a plaque reading "Adopt-a-Sign" (a takeoff on the "Adopt-a-Highway" program) and their names displayed on its side. Pierce County is somewhat unique in Wisconsin by having two of these signs along its borders, Thoner said, mentioning the department would like to find someone to perform a similar flower treatment at the one in Prescott.