The Barns Remain but the Artists are Forgotten!
By Gerald P. Carl - 1984
If you were to travel some of the U,S, routes throughout the Northeastern part of these United States, such as New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, or West Virginia, you will probably see some remains of a now forgotten art of outdoor advertising by way of the Mail Pouch Tobacco barn signs.
This all started back in 1925 in Syracuse, New York, when six men, 2 per truck, started their "barnstorming" painting: of Mail Pouch signs on barns. The trucks were Ford model T's with side curtains.
The original six man crew included: Bill Hart, Bill Bucks, Kenneth Walkerman, Carl Wunelle, and Maurice Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman, affectionately called "Zim" by family and friends, is the only living member of the original crew. He is the one who tells this story of barn advertising signs.
Zim was 18 when he graduated from high school near Washington Ct. House, Ohio, in 1924. His brother, Walter, was an executive with the YMCA, then living in Youngstown, Ohio. He urged him to come to Youngstown to find a job. He became interested in sign painting and went to night school at the YMCA and worked during the day as an apprentice in a sign studio.
In August of 1925, Maurice traveled to Syracuse where he met the contractor for the sign work which was hired by the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Co. in Wheeling, W,Va., where they manufactured Mail Pouch chewing tobacco. The money paid to the contractor to do barn signs was from funds the Company allotted for Advertising. From Syracuse they traveled west on main highways, the U,S. and state highways. They looked for barns to paint their signs on.
When Zim first started working for Harry Herig, the first of three contractors for whom he would paint, the men did their own "leasing." The crews were assigned a certain territory and they would go to a town, maybe stay for as long as two weeks, and work that area. They would select their own locations or barns. "We'd use our judgment as to how much we'd pay for the lease," Zim recalls.
They would pay anywhere from $2 to $10 and as little as $1 and some of the farmers thought they were getting rich quick in those days. "Two men would do a sign in half a day, but you had to learn to work into it and develop a speed which would make money for your contractor,"
"The equipment, including the truck, was provided by the tobacco contractor, but the expenses were our own. We put a lot of miles on that old Ford. I still wonder how the truck stayed in working condition. Often the Model T would just barely make a hill. I especially remember the St. Clairsville hill when it was snowy and icy. I don't know which was worse, going up or coming down. But we always made it." Zim remembers.
The paint Zim used was Dutch Boy white lead which came in 100 pound kegs. "We opened untold hundreds of those kegs - those steel kegs of white lead." They stored their mixed paint in 5 and 10 gallon milk cans. He said the paint was a "heavy paste and we mixed it with linseed oil to a think consistency. Then we thinned it with gasoline. That was our paint thinner - gasoline." For the black paint, dry lampblack would be mixed with the Linseed oil. "We put it on just as heavy as it would go on. You couldn't make your paint thin because some of those barns would soak it in. It was like painting on a blotter sometimes and they were very rough," Zim said.
The whole side of the barn was not painted, he explained, and a process of "spotting on the letters" was used. "That's where you work the letters into the space where the lettering goes. Then take a brush and make the shape of the letter. Then you "spot" on that color, white or yellow." Then the message that he painted was "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco, Treat Yourself to the Best."
Before starting a job, Zim said, "We'd get back and visualize the barn and picture that sign in your mind. You'd pick out a board or window, or something to use as a guideline, and spot on the letters, like CHEW, and always begin at the top. It's in rough form when you get it done." He never used a stencil to letter in a barn.
The words "Chew" and "Treat Yourself To The Best" were almost always in white, and Mail Pouch Tobacco, in yellow. "Sometimes a farmer insisted on a red sign. That was a bother, and more expensive. We had to shade the letters in black so they would stand out. Occasionally I did an oval background for the sign."
"It was the only company that I knew of that did that kind of barn advertising," Zim recalled. Other advertising which eventually disappeared included: Fletcher's Castoria for children, Lydia Pinkman's Tonic for women, Bull Durham, Battle Axe, and Red Man Chewing Tobacco.
"We called ourselves barn massagers, walldogs or barn lizards," We called our big six-inch brushes 'mops' and our overalls 'skins.' Our skins would get stiff and crusted like suits of armor. When they got so bad we could hardly get into them, we'd throw them away buy new ones," Zim stated.
"There weren't many environmentalists around in those days to complain about road signs. Oh, once in a while we'd get some static - usually from women - not about the sign itself, but about chewing tobacco. Sometimes we'd find a lady barn owner, who liked to chew tobacco.
"Pay? When we started it was $50 a week, and we had to pay all our own expenses out of that. About 23 years ago I was getting $115 a week, and still had to subtract meals and lodging.,,"
There were the times too, when Zim and his crew were left stranded with not much money left while they waited for a Western Union money order from the tobacco company to catch up with them
"We worked the year around, with just a week off at Christmas, and it was real barnstorming!" Zim recalls.
In more than 35 years, Maurice and his crew painted 12,000 barns. Neither rain nor snow nor ill-tempered barnyard beasts could stay them from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Their signs became one of the hallmarks of rural America. "The old Model T Ford truck chugging through a northeastern Ohio snowstorm 58 years ago was quite a sight. "Irish" Joe Fitzgerald, one of many painting partners, would have been wearing his five-buckle artics to stave off frostbit, his "store bought" aluminum teeth chattering in the cold," Zim remembers.
He worked through out the mid-west. "We once worked in Maryland but we had to abandon that because the signs were taxed and we needed a license to operate. The same was true in New Jersey and Kentucky." Back in the 20's and 30's not only did he paint the Mail Pouch sign on the side of the barn but would even paint roof markings for airplanes. "One summer I wanted to save some money. I bought a tent, and my wife, Lola, and I with two babies "roughed it" like gypsies. During our stay around Lehighton PA,, Lola canned 70 pints of blue berries while I worked, quite a chore on a three burner stove.
"I raiscd my family on Mail Pouch; one son, Norman, three daughters, Jean, Maxine and Pauline, and yet I don't smoke or chew anything stronger than Wrigley's spearmint," says Zim.
Since a barn sign would remain in good shape for only three years, Zim often returned to a particular farm several times during his career. Once on a return trip the farmer had built a fence so close to the barn that he had to paint three fourths of the Mail Pouch sign through the fence. One time a man asked me to paint a sign on the side of his house. I later found out that the man was a bootlegger and this is how customers recognized his house. The farmers and their families knew him by name and with each visit they would bring him up to date on the events of the previous three years. He would be told how the harvest had been, which son had gone off to war, and what was going to be planted in the next spring. He has cherished each one of these friendships.
He often met interesting people. In Indiana, PA., he visited Jimmy Stewart's father who was in the hardware business. Also in that state they did a barn for the uncle of Dennis Day, the singer. And near Barnesville, Ohio, they also did a job on the birthplace of William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy).
Zim recalls that his first barn sign was done near Norwalk, Oh, on Route 20 in 1925. His largest Mail Pouch sign was done on the side of a building on First Street in Wheeling, W.Va. It was 110 feet high and 43 feet wide. He also painted the sign on the factory in Wheeling in 1929, which can still be seen today as you drive by.
The letters in the words Mail Pouch were three to four feet high and some as large as six to eight feet high. He also painted on a house in Lancaster and a silo near Napoleon, Ohio. The last sign he painted was at the request of his son, Norman, who also lives in Cambridge, "Dad, if I ever build a barn, I want you to paint a Mail Pouch sign on it." The barn was built in 1975 and the sign has been painted on its side.
The Mail Pouch Tobacco Co. today (1984) has only one painter carrying out the 93 year old tradition. He is a Belmont County painter named Harley Warrick. Warrick broke in with a Mr. Duffy of Barnesville before becoming a helper to Zim.
"In 1976 the Bicentennial did a lot to stir up interest in the past, and there seemed to be a whole cult of people interested in Mail Pouch signs. My neighbor, the retired State Senator, Bob Secrest, is a history buff and chewer of Mail Pouch. If he had his way old barns bearing those tobacco signs would be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so they couldn't be torn down as easily.
"I'm amazed at other ways the signs are being remembered. One sign I did on a barn on Route 20 near Clyde, Ohio, was removed and transported to New York City, where it became part of the decor in the "Sign of the Dove" restaurant in Manhattan. Some artists have photographed or painted pictures of the sign. Dr. James Toland of Cambridge, in 1976, showed a whole collection of such painting at the Salt Fork Arts and Crafts Festival in Cambridge.
"The Television people had been after us, too. Back in 1974, Charles Kuralt of CBS, interviewed Harley Warrick for His "On the Road" series. So did WOUB of Athens. And in 1976, the public television station WBGU at Bowling Green photographed me painting Harold Cunningham's barn near Salt Fork State Park. I made it as "old-timey" as possible... We even had a 1929 truck."
Maurice "Zim" Zimmerman, now 78, (in 1984) still lives in Cambridge, Ohio, with his wife Lola. They have been married 58 years and they are enjoying their retirement. He is a joy to talk with and he enjoys reminiscing about those days on the road "barnstorming."
(Editor's note: Maurice Zimmerman passed away in 1993)
There is a side story to all of this. The Zimmerman's are members of the Christ United Methodist Church which I have pastored for the last three years, since 1981.
While Zim has been in the hospital this past winter, I had many occasions to visit with him. One afternoon he began to share with me what he had done for a living. I discovered that we had two things in common. First, I am an amateur sign painter and had an opportunity to work part time for a professional sign painter in Canton, Ohio, when I lived there about 10 years ago. I can appreciate what he had done for 35 years and a little of what was involved in his work.
The second thing that we have in common is that after graduation from high school in 1956, I went to work for the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company in Wheeling. The same company that Zim had painted the signs for, He did advertising and I made the chewing tobacco. It's very nice to meet people that you have some things in common with and to talk to them about their experiences and share those things.