Eighteen years ago, in an act of Philistinism it later repented, Congress classified Harley Warrick’s life’s work as an eyesore. Prodded by Lady Bird Johnson and fed up with the noxious clutter of billboards, it responded with the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, banning billboards within 660 feet of an interstate. The law forced early retirement on a half-dozen paint-spattered artists whose canvases were weathered barns throughout the South and Midwest and whose homely message was “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco.” Most of the men went to work in the coal mines—Mail Pouch’s parent company, General Cigar and Tobacco, is located in Wheeling, W. Va.—but Harley Warrick stayed aboveground.
Within a year Mail Pouch put Harley back on the job, keeping up its signs that weren’t on the interstates. But his vindication was not yet complete. Then, in 1974, at the urging of West Virginia Sen. Jennings Randolph, Congress saw the flaw in its vision of beauty and lifted its prohibition on landmark signs adorning “farm structures or natural surfaces.” Today, as America’s sole surviving Mail Pouch painter, Warrick, 59, covers nine states in his green Chevy pickup, redoing as many as 200 barns a year in the 25 to 30 weeks he spends on the road. “In the olden days, with two or three helpers, I’d buzz through these things like they was hot-cakes,” he says. “Nowadays I’m not on any tight schedule. I get done what I get done.”
A farm boy from Londonderry, Ohio, Warrick signed on with Mail Pouch in 1946 when one of their paint crews showed up for the quadrennial retouching of the family barn. The job paid $28 a week, plus a penny and a half per square foot. Then as now, Warrick got all the Mail Pouch he could chew (“But you can’t spit from a scaffold,” he warns, “especially if there’s a bit of wind”).
Twice married, with four children ranging in age from 16 to 27, Harley spends his time off back home in Belmont, Ohio, where he, wife Louise and son Roger turn out miniature barn-shaped bird feeders and sell them for $25 apiece. Then, with spring approaching, he sits down to talk with the Mail Pouch people. “We meet some time in February,” he says, “and talk about how much I need for expenses and the use of my truck. They always argue it’s too much. Then after we shake hands, they say, ‘Now, Harley, are you sure it’s enough?’ I make a living. I put one daughter through college and I got another son coming up.”
In recent years Harley has acquired a certain unsought cachet. In 1971 he was a Smithsonian Institution attraction at the Montreal exposition, where he painted and repainted the same barn every day, whiting over his work every night. Earlier this year he painted his sign across the front of a $140,000 barn-shaped home belonging to an Ohio college professor and her husband, and he does the occasional offbeat interior. “I can tell you,” he says, “you feel pretty ridiculous doing this standing on a shag rug in somebody’s living room.” Still, most of Harley’s work is traditional, and one of his pleasures is renewing old friendships, returning to places where people see his signs not as advertising but as part of the landscape of their lives on the farm.
Like most landscapes, this one is changing. America’s Mail Pouch signs may be landmarks, but the barns that carry them are a dwindling breed. Once there were 17,000, “but there’s probably only a thousand of ’em left nowadays,” says Harley. “I saw I lost two more my last trip. One blew over. The other got tore up for a shopping center. Well, I suppose it’s progress, but I don’t like it. I’m a little like Johnny Appleseed. I want a little something left that shows I been around.”