John Rietveld, 50, enjoys waiting for the lights to change—on more than 100 vintage stoplights in his home-based Museum of Traffic Control in Pella, Iowa.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated with traffic signals,” says Rietveld, who at age 6 drew chalk roadways and made stoplights and signs from shoeboxes for the sidewalks where he pedaled his Big Wheel.
When he was 20, Rietveld bought his first traffic signal—an early 1950s stoplight made by General Electric—from an antique shop in Sacramento, California, and he’s been collecting them ever since.
Today, when he steps into his 1,700-square-foot basement museum, signals flash red, green and amber and direct pedestrians to “Walk” or “Don’t Walk.” From floor to ceiling, more than 100 vehicle and pedestrian lights blink amid some 500 street and highway signs, including original markers for Route 66 and Sunset Boulevard.
Rietveld’s signs and signals date from 1915 to the 1990s. His oldest stoplights have glass lenses, many with patterns and embossed commands—Stop, Go, Caution.
“I really like the ornate ones,” says Rietveld, admiring his rarest stoplight, a 1915 cast-iron model that resembles a birdcage. Its eight-sided revolving cylinder displays “Stop” and “Go” above the red and green lights, and a bell sounds when the message rotates. Invented by electrical engineer Ralph W. Wiley, the light once stood at a San Francisco intersection and is one of about 20 known to survive.
Although many cities scrap their retired traffic signals, Rietveld discovers discarded markers at antique stores, highway departments and signal maintenance yards. He also gets leads from www.signalfan.com, the website that he created in 1997 for like-minded enthusiasts.
Rietveld worked as a stage-light technician in Fullerton, California, before he and his wife, Jackie, and their son, Jacob, moved to his father’s hometown of Pella in 2005.
The couple credits the collection with helping them see the light about their future. During a long road trip in California to buy a traffic signal, they had a heart-to-heart talk about where and how they wanted to raise their son. Jackie longed to be a stay-at-home mother, but they couldn’t afford that arrangement where they lived. So they loaded up their signals and signs and relocated to Iowa.
One of Rietveld’s favorite signals is Pella’s first traffic light, which was installed at the intersection of Main and Franklin streets in 1950, about the time his father learned to drive. The light hangs beside the newspaper article and photo that heralded its arrival.
Rietveld, a technical writer for Vermeer Corp., opens his museum by appointment and enjoys seeing visitors’ reactions to road signs that bear head-scratching warnings such as “No Parking or Driving on Sidewalk” and “No Skiing Under Bridge.”
Nearly every evening, he tinkers on his traffic controls. “They’re kind of mesmerizing,” Rietveld says. “Everyone who comes down here says, ‘Wow!’ They leave with a new appreciation of signals.”