Even if you don’t know Ed Bischoff personally, you definitely know him professionally, even if you don’t know it.
Ed’s been helping Evergreen get where it’s going for more than two decades, and while he’s not one to toot his own horn, the relaxed and unassuming businessman has probably done more to help mountain-area folks get connected than Alexander Graham Bell. Ed Bischoff is the co-founder and most public face of Zuni Sign Co. – and the very definition of “man-about-town.”
“If you drive from Conifer to El Rancho, I’d say 90 percent of the signs you’ll see are Zuni signs,” says Ed, with quiet pride. “We’ve done over 22,000 work orders since we started, and a lot of those work orders were for 10 signs or more. We’ve made a lot of signs,” he grins.
And a lot of friends. Many a local nonprofit can claim no better friend than Zuni, and Bischoff is never too busy to pitch in for a worthy cause. That strong community orientation has earned Zuni Sign Co. “Business of the Year” laurels from both the Evergreen Area Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Serenity magazine; and the quality and artistry of Zuni’s product has, in no small way, helped define the very character of its community. Not bad for a kid from Saint Joseph, Mo, whose major pre-occupation in college was playing Big 8 rugby.
“I started out playing defensive end on the Kansas State football team,” Ed recalls. “When I saw the rugby team practicing, I thought it looked like fun, so I ended up playing rugby for three years.”
If Bischoff found that punishing sport rewarding to play, far more rewarding was scoring a serendipitous introduction to fine-art student Vicki Renfro, a fine-arts student and from Emporia, Kansas and member of the university’s women’s rugby squad. Alas, their happy association suffered an abrupt time-out when Ed graduated with a degree in landscape architecture and was quickly snapped up by Colorado’s Mined Land Reclamation Division. In true pioneer style, the Saint Joseph boy steered his wagon west to Denver and in 1979 began making sure regional coal mine operators stayed in compliance with the freshly-minted federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
“My job was to inspect them to make sure they were doing everything they said they’d do to reclaim the site.”
Later promoted to head up the division’s hard rock mine section, Bischoff’s duties took him across the length and breadth of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West, and found his hat hanging in homes from Louisville to Eldorado Springs to Steamboat Springs and, of course, Evergreen. It was important work, but demanding, and required a working knowledge of such diverse disciplines as geology, hydrology, biology and geochemistry. It also required a tough hide because not every mine operator appreciated being compelled to make good on their promises.
“It was a great way to see Colorado, but there was always significant stress.”
By 1989 he’d had his fill of butting heads with recalcitrant miners and went to work as a direct consultant to the DOE in the area of hazardous and radioactive waste disposal.
“We were finding ways to safely dispose of uranium tailings from southwestern Colorado riverbeds,” Bischoff says. “Those mill tailings contain a lot of low-level radiation and can potentially emit radon gas. Unfortunately, in the 50s, 60s and 70s those tailings were considered a great construction material in Grand Junction. A lot of it was used as fill-dirt in construction. We did a lot of remediation through the Colorado Department of Health.”
Transferred to DOE’s operations office in Albuquerque as a project manager, Ed directed the “waste characterization” of atomic-era sites like Los Alamos and the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, and Pantex in Amarillo. When offered the chance to command Colorado’s oversight of reclamation efforts at Rocky Flats, however, he was pleased to take a pass on that particularly prestigious hot potato.
“It was a loser from my perspective,” he shrugs. “Too many emotions involved, and too much politics. No matter what I did, nobody would be happy.”
While his DOE career was a resounding success by professional standards, by personal ones it fell far short of the mark. In 1993 Ed was attending yet another interminable meeting in Los Alamos when he was struck by a life-changing flash of clarity.
“It was a déjà-vu moment,” he explains. “I realized I was sitting with the exact same group, with the exact same agenda, talking about the exact same stuff we’d been talking about for years. We hadn’t made a lot of progress, but we’d managed to spend millions of dollars. I decided I needed to look for something more fulfilling.”
Ed moved back to Colorado where, as nothing so random as luck would have it, his college flame resided. Fact is, despite their diverse travels and careers, Ed and Vicki never entirely lost track of each other. Following a successful hitch with Hughes Missile Systems Group in Tucson, Vicki had relocated to the Centennial State, and in 1993 had just begun managing a small sign shop located in a century-old cabin on Evergreen’s Main Street.
“It was called ‘The Sign Farm: Where Pigs Fly,’” says Ed, trying hard not to grimace. “One of the partners was selling out. Vicki and I were a couple by then, and we bought a controlling interest.”
And, needless to say, changed the name to the more comely and less porcine “Zuni.” Thanks in equal part to Vicki’s inexhaustible artistic gifts and to Ed’s considerable accumulation of practical talents, Zuni Sign Co. has been the mountain area’s go-to show-me shop ever since.
Attractive and durable Zuni signs hang above businesses from Fairplay to Estes Park, a great number of them fashioned from solid wood in colorful deep-relief, an appealingly rustic motif created by Vicki and now rightly regarded as a truly “Evergreen” style of public communication. Zuni signs made of native stone stand proudly before many a mountain home, and entire neighborhoods sport Colorado-chic street signs. Smartly printed awnings, billboards and banners, vehicle graphics, wrought-iron signs, eye-catching yard signs and electric signs that light the night are all Zuni’s stock-in-trade. Many a grave is marked by lovely and lasting monuments created in Bischoff’s shop, and a majestic and sublime wooden welcome sign of Vicki’s design greets guests from around the world to the visitors center on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
“That’s pretty cool,” Ed smiles.
It should also be noted that the three handsome cornerstone signs greeting visitors at Evergreen’s three principal approaches are all examples of Zuni craftsmanship, each one quietly maintained by Zuni as a particularly public service. Then again, if you ask Ed Bischoff, he’ll tell you that serving his Evergreen neighbors is more of a joy than a job.
“This is such a unique place,” he says. “It’s filled with people who want to be here. They care more, and they give more. And that makes all the difference.”