by Ramona K. Cecil
As a child of the 1950s and 1960s growing up in the American rural
I was accustomed to seeing various advertisements painted on the sides and
roofs of barns. In recent years, however, those iconic sights are becoming more
and more rare.
During my childhood, you couldn’t travel ten miles in any direction of my home without seeing a handful of “billboard” barns. The most common of those were the ones promoting Mail Pouch Tobacco. While I don’t in any way advocate the use of tobacco products, I must admit, those barn signs always made me smile.
Turns out, there is a reason the Mail Pouch Tobacco barn signs were so numerous. Most were the prolific lifework of one man; Harley Warrick. While the Mail Pouch Tobacco Company first began using barns to advertise their product in the 1890s, the practice took off in 1925 when the company sent out six men in two-man painting crews to “barnstorm” the countryside in Ford model T trucks.
|Barn in process of being painted|
I always wondered what barn owners got in exchange for agreeing to have advertisements painted on their buildings. Turns out they were paid very little; $1.00 or $2.00 per year of advertising in the 1930s. The real value was not having to paint the barn themselves and they could pick whatever color they wanted the rest of the barn painted. A pretty good deal, I’d say.
It was in 1946 when one of these painting crews came to the
dairy farm of Harley Warrick, that kicked their barn advertising into
overdrive. Twenty-one years old and fresh from WWII, Harley was living on his
family’s dairy farm and employed at a sign shop when the Mail Pouch Tobacco painting
crew asked to paint the family’s dairy barn. Harley expressed interest in
joining the company and was hired as part of their two-man painting crews. For
the next thirty-eight years, Harley Warrick traveled the country painting two
or three barns a day, six days a week; an average of seven hundred barns per
|Harley Warrick beside his truck|
Another familiar barn sign you may have noticed while motoring across the county is the one inviting travelers to see Rock City, Tennessee; a ten-acre natural attraction near Chattanooga that features massive ancient rock formations, botanical gardens, and a seven-state panoramic view from Lookout Mountain.
In 1936, Clark Byers had worked for a cotton mill and bottled buttermilk for $3.00 a week when a
Chattanooga advertiser hired him to paint advertisements
on barn roofs. For more than thirty years Byers and two helpers painted slogans
like “ Rock City Gardens See Rock City, TN,”
and “See 7 states from ” on 900 barn
roofs over 19 states. As compensation for the advertising, barn owners were
given either promotional wares like bath mats and thermometers that bore the Lookout
name, or $3.00 to $5.00 cash. Over his three decades of work, Byers braved
slippery roofs, angry bulls, and lightning bolts to spread the word about Rock City . In 1968, while
painting a roof near Rock City
Gardens , Byers made contact
with a high voltage wire. The accident put him out of commission for months and
convinced him to hang up his paint brush for good. Murfreesboro,
By the mid 1960s, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 and the new interstate highway system dealt the barn advertising business a fatal one-two punch. The Act deemed the barn signs an eyesore while the interstate highway system lured travelers away from the roads and highways along which, the barn signs could be seen.
|President Johnson signing Highway Beautification Act of 1965|
|Modern interstate highway system|
Though often rickety and with their messages weather-faded, a fair number of these bucolic billboard barns still dot the rural landscape of
Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of