It was the summer 1985. I was in my second year as a photographer and occasional writer for the Ashtabula Star Beacon while, when searching for feature art in the Rock Creek area, I came across a barn being painted.
The barn was just north of Rock Creek, on Route 45. The painter was Harley Warrick, of Wheeling, W.Va., an American treasure.
Harley began painting barns at the age of 21, in 1946. Two days home from the Army, a Mail Pouch team came into the area and painted two ends of the Warrick family’s barn. Harley got to talking to the painters and got interested in joining a crew. Facing the task of milking 26 Jerseys every night and morning if he stayed on the farm, Warrick joined a painting team. Lacking any civilian clothes, he wore his Army uniform during his first week on the job.
Warrick worked 13 states, Michigan to Missouri to New York. He painted some 4,000 barns, and not just once. Every three or four years, the signs had to be repainted.
He usually worked with a helper, who filled in the background around the letters. All work was done free hand. Warrick’s preference was to start with the “E” in CHEW and then add the “H” and “W.” The reason? Those were his initials.
He’d been known to repaint six signs in one day and two new signs a day. He had a sense of humor, occasionally purposely misspelling a word to see if the tobacco company would get any calls.
It was a hard life. Warrick was on the road weeks at a time, often sleeping in his truck or a cheap motel. His first marriage suffered from the long absences, and his wife gave him the ultimatum. Warrick chose his work, but for his second marriage, he agreed to gone but one week at a time.
He might have been unemployed by the 1965 Federal Highway Beautification Act had it not been for the fact that the existing signs were grandfathered and therefore exempted from the new restrictions on highway advertising. Mail Pouch discontinued the painting program in 1969, but Warrick’s signs got an extension on life when the signs were declared National Landmarks. Mail Pouch continued to support the program until Warrick’s retirement, at which time he was the last of the barn advertising sign painters.
The last barn that Mr. Warrick painted was at Barkcamp State Park, Belmont, Ohio, Warrick’s hometown. He’d originally painted the 150-year-old barn in the early 1980s.
I recall Harley as a fascinating, witty Yankee with a penchant for smoking a pipe. He told me that he’d once gone through a box of matches lighting his pipe for a National Geographic photographer who was trying to the perfect flare on the match tip, puff of smoke and expression in one frame of film.
Harley died Nov. 24, 2000, in Wheeling.
Although the Mail Pouch barn he painted in Rock Creek 30 years ago is showing its age, the lettering is discernable and the weathering adds to the nostalgia of the structure. The negatives I shot that day were destroyed years ago, and I’ve always regretted having not taken color transparencies of the artist at work. But every time I pass the barn I recall how a chance discovery along the rural highway enriched my life as much as the red and yellow sign embellish the landscape.