From left, Scott County Highway employees Stanley Harris, Sterl Kline, Larry Tucker and Rick Whitworth install a new County Road 420 sign Wednesday morning near Oran, Mo. Theft of the County Road 420 signs has become an issue for Scott County.
The number 420 refers to marijuana -- generally believed to be the time of day that, in 1971, a group of students at a San Rafael, Calif., high school met to smoke the drug. The number has since become an international slang term. For example, High Times magazine has established a 420 campaign to legalize marijuana use.
While some people may think stealing road signs is funny, it is anything but to Brant and officials in Scott, Cape Girardeau and Perry counties.
On Wednesday, Brant watched the latest effort to replace Scott County signs in place at three intersections. Over three hours, five workers installed 8-inch steel pipes, each pounded into the ground by a backhoe shovel. The brackets that hold the road signs are welded onto each pipe; the bolts securing the signs are welded as well.
This time, Brant said, he hopes the signs stick around. They could save a life someday, he said.
Remnants of County Road 420 signs remain on a pole at the intersection of County Road 417 in Scott County. Norman Brant, Scott County highway superintendent, estimates 40 signs have been stolen from that one corner.
"The people in the house could see the ambulance lights in the distance, going back and forth on Route CC," he said. "Finally the driver guessed at a gravel road and he was right."
Brant considered putting up surveillance cameras and motion-sensitive lighting. Once, he had work crews slather cow manure on the poles to discourage thieves.
"That kind of backfired on us because the manure dried up," he said.
Only two signs mark Cape Girardeau's County Road 420 as it rises and dips for three miles from Route B, south of Route KK, all the way to Bollinger County.
Cape Girardeau County highway administrator Scott Bechtold said he "naively thought thieves were after the aluminum signs for recycling" and so ordered replacement signs made of wood. Those disappeared, too.
"They can't help nobody when they're gone," Bechtold said, glancing at the new metal sign, ready to be installed.
Bechtold purchases signs from the Missouri Department of Corrections at $30 each.
Perry County emergency management director Jack Lakenan III, who makes the signs for his county's roads, said 420 signs disappeared frequently until they were mounted in a fashion similar to Scott County's signs.
"We have a bigger problem with the private lane signs," he said. "They get stolen more frequently, especially if they have a family name or Teddy Bear Lane. For a long time that was gone almost every week. This may go on for a month or two, then it quits."
Lakenan blames part of the problem on teen scavenger hunts, which ask for county road signs "or a private lane sign starting with a certain letter or the one with the most letters."
He's heard similar stories of lost ambulances, "especially in regions where you don't get that many calls and the ambulance people aren't that familiar with where they are."
New name complicated
Changing a road name to something less attractive to drug users and pranksters would be complicated, Brant said.
"All deeds and maps would have to be changed, along with Global Positioning System information," he said. "All the property owners would have to be contacted."
Scott County Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said the county spends nearly $6,000 every year on replacing signs, but that figure would be much lower if age, weather or accidents were the only reasons for installing new markers.
Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said stealing a road is a misdemeanor, unless the value of the item taken is more than $500, at which point the crime becomes a felony.
The value of Scott County's three new signs could be as high as $900, the approximate cost of materials and man-hours, Brant said. But all the materials used were scrap from other projects. County workers make the signs, which cost about $10.
"If we'd had to go out and replace it all with new, it would be expensive," Brant said. "But I want to stress the safety. Some of the people living on these roads are property owners and elderly."
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