Restorers make barn a splittin' image of bygone era
[Chicago Final Edition]
Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill.
Author: Tim Jones, Tribune national correspondent
Date: May 13, 2003
Start Page: 9
(Click here to see the listing for the barn mentioned in this article.)
Even though his father chewed Mail Pouch tobacco for 75 years and lived to be 92, Larry Stumbaugh has always had trouble chewing the stuff.
"If I'm out someplace where I can spit all the time, OK," Stumbaugh said. "Otherwise, I can't stand it."
But Stumbaugh does like the barn directly across the road from his home along U.S. Highway 42. It's the first thing he sees when he pokes his head out the front door-the bold black sidings with yellow and white letters that read "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco." A misty blue border frames he handsome old barn, bringing to mind the era of Mail Pouch barns of more than a half-century ago.
Stumbaugh could have been any of thousands of people scattered about the Midwest and beyond who witness the withering demise of decrepit Mail Pouch barns, sad, battered and leaning structures that seem to be held together only by the molecular structure of the fading paint.
Dozens upon dozens of Web sites memorialize these structures, lamenting the sorry state of thousands of once-proud but now pathetic barns that dotted the rural landscape from coast to coast and advertised the nation's best-selling chewing tobacco.
This barn is not one of those.
The stunning rejuvenation of the then-fading Mail Pouch barn in Lexington advances the legacy of Harley Warrick, the last of the great Mail Pouch barn painters. He died in late 2000.
Passion for chaw barns
Warrick, a southeastern Ohio native, spent 55 years as part of an itinerant band of barn painters, painting or touching up thousands of Mail Pouch barns from Missouri to New York. In a Kilroy touch, Warrick would paint his initials on the barns.
One of those was the barn across the road from Stumbaugh's house.
Just as chewing tobacco is an acquired taste, recognition of Mail Pouch barns is usually embraced by those in middle age or older who can remember highway symbols like burma Shave, Stuckey's, Howard Johnson's before it became HoJO's, and Mail Pouch. When President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Federal Highway Beautification Act in the mid-1960s, it prohibited outdoor advertising within 660 feet of a federally funded highway. That marked the beginning of the end of Mail Pouch barns.
Federal landmark status would later preserve some of them, but Warrick and his colleagues were fighting a battle against time and the elements.
The idea to repaint this barn 20 years later was born over fried bologna sandwiches at a bar in nearby Waldo. Artists working on canvas have been capturing Mail Pouch barns for years. Lore' Whitney, a lawyer in Mansfield who owns the barn, decided she wanted to eliminate the canvas.
Owner's sense of history
"I wanted to preserve some of Americana, some of the past," said Whitney, who said she does not chew tobacco. "I own a lot of Mail Pouch memorabilia, like signs and thermometers, and I wanted to preserve the barn."
The idea was quickly put to two public-school art teachers in Lexington, Mike Hammann and Howard Hoffman, who were always looking for summer work.
"After a few more beers I said 'Why not?'" said Hoffman, who doubles as a football coach and used to chew Red Man "for quite a few years. Then I got into investigating the health issues, and I stopped."
"But I miss it, absolutely," Hoffman added.
In his prime, Warrick could repaint as many as six barns in a day. Hammann and Hoffman found the going a lot slower when they painted the barn last summer. The sun-dried plank boards hadn't tasted paint in two decades and practically sucked it up. They had to put on many layers of blak paint and contrasting colors. It was a very public project in Lexington that took two weeks to complete and cost Whitney $3,200.
Hoffman said he felt pressure to do it right because everyone drives Route 42 and he has to pass the barn every day on the way to work.
"All these people kept stopping by as we worked and they would ask, 'Why are you being so particular?' I would tell them our kids are going to be looking at this," Hoffman said. "We are forever talking about craftsmanship in school, and we have to do this right so the kids can look at this with pride."
It is undeniably a bold, black beauty. The brightly painted Mail Pouch message practically leaps from the boards.
"Treat Yourself To The Best" reads the trademark inscription.
If you are heading north on 42, the barn pops out from the horizon and offers a pleasant roadside departure from cars being sold on front lawns and motels sporting signs that read "GOD BLESS THE USA. CHECK OUT OUR GREAT RATES."
Somewhere Harley Warrick is smiling.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.