I love seeing the old Rock City barns that still stand along many two-lane roads. They advertise the 10 acres of rock formations atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee (http://www.seerockcity.com). The park opened in 1932, and the project of painting barns to attract visitors began a few years later.
The other day I saw this old thermometer on eBay and successfully bid on it. It will soon join my small collection of antique advertising and highway signs. According to this page—http://www.seerockcity.com/pages/Barn-History —the thermometers were among the promotional items (and in some cases a small monetary payment) given to people who consented to having their barns or sheds painted. Thus placed in a nostalgic mood, I pulled from the shelves an old favorite book, David B. Jenkins’ Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Chattanooga: Free Spirit Press, 1996).
Jenkins provides small photographs of all the known Rock City barns (and also sheds, garages, and at least one small store), and larger color photographs of particularly beautiful or unusual examples. Jenkins spent a long time and drove many thousands of miles to locate and photograph the quaint places. Some photos join with stories of people who own the barns: for instance, an older farmer who lived along U.S. 41 in western Indiana. I loved to see that particular barn during all the years I drove from Kentucky to Illinois to visit my parents in the 1990s (pp. 26-27).
Jenkins’ book includes the story of Clark Byers, the barn painter himself. He and his crew used 4-inch brushes, first painting the roofs black. Then he freehanded the white letters on each barn, using a variety of slogans like “See Rock City,” “Bring Your Camera,” “Beautiful Beyond Belief,” “When You See Rock City, You See the Best,” and of course, “See Seven States.” According to Byers, he was paid $40 a barn.
Jenkins writes that there are extant barns in fourteen states. See Rock City, Inc. had file cards about each barn, dating from the 1960s, but Jenkins found other barns not represented in the company’s records. Of course, he discovered that many barns no longer existed. He sadly writes that their quaintness, deterioration, and (for some) demolition indicate the passing of vital eras of American family farming.
Leafing through the book, you might find photos that you particularly enjoy. Jenkins himself is proud of a photo of a small Louisiana barn; just as he took the photo, a train passed across the nearby field (pp. 42-43). There is only one extant Rock City barn in Texas, and it gets a color photo. One barn in Alabama—painted “Fun for the Family See Rock City” faces a graveyard (pp. 122-123). As he writes, the fading barns seem most quaint and attractive.
My own favorite Rock City barn does not get a full color photo but is included in the back of the book (p. 138). This barn sits along U.S. 51 a few miles south of Vandalia, Illinois, my hometown. (The book mislabels it as being along U.S. 67.) It was one of the many rural sights I noticed whenever we made the half-hour drive to the next larger town, Centralia, where we shopped sometimes and where my orthodontist’s office was located. I have not driven that way for a while but the last time I did, the barn was still there but the once-white letters on the roof had completely oxidized and were no longer recognizable.
The very first family vacation that I recall was a visit to Rock City and Lookout Mountain. This was before the interstates. We began the vacation by traveling Illinois route 185 across Four Mile Prairie, the familiar way to my grandma’s house—-the road pictured in the header photo for this blog. Then I assume we connected to Illinois 37 and then drove down to U.S. 50. from which we connected to U.S. 41 that would’ve taken us all the way to Chattanooga. Although I was very young, I do remember walking atop Lookout Mountain and seeing Ruby Falls. Dad said he had to spank me to keep me from running toward the edge of the mountain. That would’ve been 1961 or 1962, a time when Clark Byers was still on the road somewhere, free-handing his signs.
“To miss Rock City would be a pity.”
As I was writing this, I remembered two other favorite books. One is by William G. Simmonds, Advertising Barns, Vanishing American Landmarks, St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks International, 2004. Simmonds’ book depicts Rock City barns and also those advertising Mail Pouch tobacco, Meramec Caverns, particular products and stores, and the Ohio Bicentennial barns.
Also the noted historian Martin E. Marty and his photographer son Micah published Our Hope for Years to Come: The Search for Spiritual Sanctuary, Reflections and Photographs (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995), which combines meditations with photos of old, interesting American churches.