By Dusty Shelf
Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisements on barns are as much a part of American history as baseball, lemonade and parades.
A multitude of painters covered 22 states from the 1890s until the early 1990s when the last painter finally hung up his brush.
I’ve seen plenty of these treasured barns in the course of my travels. Really, for me, every time I see one is like the first time, I’ve seen one. They just excited me. These barn advertisements of days gone by are far less offensive and a much smaller blight on the landscape than those gigantic roadside behemoths we see near every exit of every major highway in America.
I’ve seen these barns in Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin among other states. The photo with this story was taken in southwestern Pennsylvania as well as I can remember. Near Mt. Morris I believe it was where I took this picture. Or West Virginia. I was on a backroad driving and didn’t document the actual location.
There are still many of these barns in that general area of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The barns served two major purposes. First, of course, was the advertising opportunity for Mail Pouch. And second as the barn owner got a fresh coat of paint on his or her barn at no cost to them. That and the fee the barn owner got for leasing out the space to the tobacco company were big deals for the time.
The painters would go out in one and two man teams painting the barns with brush and in the beginning lead based paint. They did the paint mainly by eyeing it up.
Of the many, many painters over the years there was one man left standing when he retired in the early 1990s. When he retired and Mail Pouch officially suspended the barn painting campaign. It seemed a fitting end to a great chapter in American pop culture.
The twice married Harley Warrick was the last Mail Pouch sign painter. He died at 76 in 2000.
I remember this guy because I was working at a newspaper in Wheeling, West Virginia at the time he passed away. It was a big deal. It was like royalty had passed. He was well known for his years as a barn painter.
He hailed from across the Ohio River in Belmont, Ohio in later years. He was originally from Londonberry, Ohio and began his career at 21 in 1946 just after World War II. The job paid $28 a week and all the Mail Pouch a painter could chew.
In his 55 year career he estimated he painted, touched up or was otherwise involved with 20,000 barn logos for Mail Pouch.
The work generally required longer road trips, long days and sleeping in a pickup truck, a cheap hotel or under the stars.
The adventure aspect always appealed to me though I am sure I have romanticized it over the years. I think lugging around 1oo gallon drums of paint, using white wash brushes and traveling the roads of America to paint signs sounds pretty good to me. Seems like a man could see a lot of the country and meet a lot of people in that kind of job.
A guy could make a lot of friends over the years painting and repainting barns for people he’s known for 10 or 20 years or longer.
It’s just part of Americana, nostalgia and pop culture I really love.