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Painted Mail Pouch barns going, going, but not gone
By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

BELMONT, Ohio – Halfway between Cincinnati and Columbus on Interstate 71 stands a wooden barn just 200 feet from the expressway with the message, “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco, Treat yourself to the Best,” painted in black, white and yellow. Cold, harsh winters have taken a toll on the barn’s paint job, but it’s still legible.
Barns such as these are cherished and admired by many who see them as a reminder of yesterday’s advertising methods and a tobacco brand that stood out among the rest at the time. Motorists here are witnessing an iconic American image from days gone by.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 declared these barns and others like them an eyesore and prohibited any more advertising billboards within 660 feet of any interstate highway, effectively ending the practice of emblazing barns with the Mail Pouch slogan.
However, some of the barns survived and now a few are even protected as historical landmarks.
At one time there had been around 20,000 barns carrying the Mail Pouch insignia. Today less than 2,000 remain. The last Mail Pouch barn that had the paint retouched was completed in Barkcamp State Park in Belmont, Ohio, on Oct. 2, 2000. The barn artist was Ohio native Harley Warrick, who has painted or retouched more Mail Pouch barns than anyone else.
The Mail Pouch barn advertising campaign was launched by the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Co., of Wheeling, W.V., in 1891. Mail Pouch Tobacco was the company’s most popular brand of tobacco at the time. The company originally opened as a dry goods store in 1879. The brothers, Aaron and Samuel, switched solely to tobacco products after an 1884 flood destroyed their business.
At the beginning, these now-iconic signs were concentrated in the northeast in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Maryland. The painted barns started appearing in other states, like Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and as far west as California. In its height during the early 1960s, thousands of Mail Pouch barns were spread across 22 states.
The Bloch brothers hired four crews of two men each to travel around the country to paint barns, with paint and scaffolding in hand. The painters were always welcomed by the barn owners because the farm received a small yearly fee for the use of their barn used for advertising.
Initially, barn owners were paid $1-$2 per year for the advertisement. In 1913 dollars, that equates to $20-$40 today. More importantly, the barn received a fresh coat by a team of painters. The Mail Pouch message was painted on one or two sides, depending on road visibility. At times, depending on the visibility from the roads, barn roofs were emblazoned with the Mail Pouch slogan.
After just five years there were only two crews. In the end there was just one man painting these barns: Harley Warrick.
Warrick was born and raised in Londonderry, Ohio, where his family had a dairy farm. When he returned from service in World War II in 1946, he began painting his family’s dairy barn with a team of Mail Pouch sign painters. Warrick decided that painting barns would be better than milking his family’s Jersey cows each day so when the painters asked him to join, them he jumped at that chance on the spot and began earning about $32 a week.
Having just returned from the Army, Warrick had no other clothes, so he painted barns for the first week in his uniform. It turned out to be the only job he ever had. Warrick trained under a seasoned Mail Pouch barn painter, Maurice Zimmerman, who also painted ads for competitor Red Man tobacco, Simoniz car wax and Minneapolis Milling Co.
Over his 55-year career, Warrick painted or retouched more than 20,000 Mail Pouch signs. He and a partner traveled together, sometimes sleeping in the back of a pickup truck or cheap motel.
His partner painted the black background while Harley lettered the advertisement. They were capable of painting two barns a day, taking about six hours per barn. Warrick painted 4,000 of those alone.
Warrick made a name for himself. His work has been exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution. Additional fame came when he appeared on Good Morning America and On the Road with Charles Kuralt. Harley was commissioned by TV newsman Ted Koppel to paint a barn on his Cross Manor historic estate in St. Inigoes, Md. In 1971, Warrick painted a Mail Pouch sign on a building for the movie, “Fool’s Parade.”
Though nearly all other sign painters went out of business, Warrick continued to work for the Swisher International Group, owner of Mail Pouch Tobacco, painting barns along lesser roads and highways until his retirement in 1991.
Art Seaman, 81, who lives in rural Shelby, Ohio, became friends with Warrick. Through this relationship and admiration, Seaman became an avid collector of Mail Pouch memorabilia.
“I attended an event at Malabar Farm State Park in Lucas, Ohio, in 1988,” Seaman said. “At this annual gathering, I saw Harley Warrick paint three large Mail Pouch Tobacco signs. The signs were auctioned as a fundraiser in support of Malabar Farms. I gained an appreciation for his work and began collecting Mail Pouch mementos that he had painted.”
Seaman said Warrick was a pipe-smoking painter, known by most as a salty character. When Seaman asked him about his work, Warrick replied, “I don’t paint barns, I paint signs on barns.”
Warrick used no template or tools, painting the sides of barns entirely by eye. His tradition, he once said, was to start with the letter ‘E’ in ‘CHEW’ then adding the ‘H’ and ‘W’, adding that those represented his initials.
A Seaman-Warrick friendship flourished through the years. After Warrick’s death in 2000, a club was formed to preserve his legendary accomplishments.
“The club became known as Mail Pouch Barnstormers,” Seaman said. “Members are spread over 15 states and Canada, and meet annually for a picnic in Harley’s home community in Belmont, Ohio.”