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What's next for iconic drive-in sign in Cottage Grove?

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Brent Peterson knows a bit of history when he sees it.

Director of the Washington County Historical Society, Peterson helps oversee the county's historic heritage and the preservation of some of its oldest properties. So what does he want with a rusty red sign?

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When a proposed Walmart goes up and the lights of the classic Cottage View Drive-In theater go down for good along U.S. Highway 61 in Cottage Grove, Peterson wants to make sure its unique sign -- a monument of mid-century modernism, decked out in a warm, neon glow after dark -- has a place to call home.

"It is just iconic," Peterson said of the drive-in's sign. "And it would be just a wonderful thing to keep."

With the Cottage Grove Planning Commission set to review plans for a Walmart Supercenter on the Cottage View site next week, the drive-in season that kicks off Friday night -- the theater's 47th in business -- looks likely to be the last. And if the city doesn't want it, Peterson said the county's historical society would be more than happy to keep the locally-famous sign for future preservation.

Up close, the sign is a rusty relic of its vibrant red past -- paint worn, some of its formerly bright neon lights burned out. But for generations in south Washington County, the sign has stood sentry along an increasingly-less rural stretch of U.S. 61 between Cottage Grove and Hastings, passing along critical information for decades-worth of drive-in goers -- what's playing Saturday night? And it has served as a reminder of an era in American culture that has largely passed.

"It's not in good shape, you know? It's pretty tacky, as a matter of fact," the drive-in's owner, Gerry Herringer, admitted in a recent interview. "But it could be restored. If the city would want it they would be more than welcome to take it."

But, like a rusty El Camino or pea green sofa, one man's tacky is another's vintage gem. Peterson said the Cottage View sign is no different than famous structures like St. Paul's James J. Hill House, or the LeDuc mansion in nearby Hastings: it is a marker of a bygone era, he said, a living piece of history that evokes memories in many.

"It is a part of Highway 61 history," Peterson said. "It oozes the 1960s and 1970s, when those drive-in theaters were really big and there were I don't know how many hundreds across the state."

Just a handful of drive-in theaters now remain in Minnesota, including the Cottage View and Lake Elmo's Vali-Hi. Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey --who grew up in the city and has said he spent numerous nights in the Cottage View's gravel lot -- said the city has no formal plans yet for the sign but is exploring ways to keep it in the city where it has stood since 1966.

"My goal is to preserve the sign," Bailey said recently. "I want to make sure the sign doesn't just get torn down and destroyed. That sign has a lot of history."

Herringer, the drive-in's owner, said no one has formally approached him yet with interest in the sign.

"I would hope somebody would [take it]," he said. "It's a little bit of an icon down there."

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