Industrial workshops have always been part of the landscape of central Boston. When Jack Kepnes opened Bay State Auto Spring in 1920, the site he chose had once been a blacksmith’s shop. The site on Hampden Street, just to the south of Boston Medical Center, was largely surrounded by residential buildings. Like other business owners, Kepnes increased the visibility of his shop with a series of eye-catching signs. This sign, fabricated in the mid-1960s, replaced a similar neon design built in the 1940s, although the company logo of the muscular worker may date back to the 1930s.
Bay State was one of few shops in central Boston to offer custom-forged brake springs, and the Kepnes’ reputation for excellent work kept the company is business even after the Southeast Expressway siphoned traffic off Hampden Street. At its peak, Bay State had some 20 employees, 24 service bays, as well as two furnaces and blacksmith’s equipment for the forging of replacement springs.
The distinctively-drawn mechanic on the Bay State sign, demonstrates the versatility of neon as a sign-maker’s medium. With practice, neon sign-makers could duplicate not just different letterforms, but also the human body. The blue-capped laborer is flexing his muscles while working on a large leaf spring. Leaf springs, which were first used on horse-drawn carts, absorb the shocks and vibration caused when a vehicle travels over a bumpy surface. They were used in almost all cars and trucks beginning at about the time Kepnes opened his shop, and demand for repair and replacement quickly boomed. A standard component of car and truck suspensions for decades, leaf springs were replaced by higher-performing coil springs in most passenger cars by the 1970s.
Bay State continued to thrive on a steady demand for truck and van brakes, in addition to other repair services. Eventually, the rising costs of labor and energy, as well as changes in the global marketplace for automotive parts challenged the sustainability of the business. By the time Bay State closed in the early 2000s, it had provided a living for generations of the Kepnes family and a multitude of their employees. The flexing spring man, with his muscular neon forearms, is a fitting monument to the work of Bay State’s laborers.