The Passing of a Legend
Harley Warrick, The Mail Pouch Sign Painter

By Nancy Nussbaum, Associated Press

Belmont, OH - Harley Warrick, 76, who was among a dozen sign painters who advertised the joys of chewing tobacco on the side of thousands of Appalachian and Midwestern barns, died November 24 in Wheeling, WVA.

Mr. Warrick and other barn painters traveled America’s heartland for months at a time to cover barns with black, white and yellow signs reading “CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO. TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST.”  Warrick spent 55 years painting or retouching more than 20,000 barns.  “The first 1000 were a little rough, and after that you got the hang of it” he said in a 1997 interview.

Warrick at work on a Mail Pouch barn
bird feeder in his shop

Appalachian historian Danny Fulks, Marshall College, Huntington, WVA said, “they just traveled from town to town like traveling salesmen or hobos. They lived cheap, maybe they’d sleep in a truck or find a cheap hotel.  They’d do a sign in maybe a half day.”

In 1946, when Warrick was 21 and returned just two days from the Army, a Mail Pouch team painted each end of his family’s dairy barn.  “I was just talking away with them and they said we need somebody on one of our crews and I thought, that’s better than milking 27 Jerseys every night and morning.”

Harley painted by eye, starting at the center with the “E” in “CHEW.”  At first he painted six days a week and prepared paint in 5-gallon kegs on Sundays.  Wages were $32 weekly.

With a helper filling in the black background, Harley did a new sign in six hours - sometimes two a day.  Warrick could repaint up to six barns in a day.  He worked in 13 states from Michigan to Missouri to New York, and painted about 4000 barns but they needed retouching every 4-5 years.  Another contractor was responsible for barns in California, Oregon and Washington State.

Mail Pouch discontinued sign painting in 1969, in part due to the Federal Highway Beautification Act that prohibited outdoor advertising within 660’ of a federally funded highway.  Existing signs weren’t affected but further restrictions and costs doomed the program.  Later, Mail Pouch signs were designated National Landmarks which allowed Warwick to continue painting despite restrictions on tobacco advertising.

Mr. Warrick retired in 1993 but continued to paint barns, repainting his last in October at Barkcamp State Park in his hometown of Belmont.  Warrick originally painted the 150-year old barn in the early 1980s.

Daughter Lena Williams, Cincinnati said, “He would always say if you could find a job that you would do without being paid, that’s what you should do.  I don’t think he really thought about it as work.  It was just what he did.”  She is writing a book on her father and Mail Pouch signs.

Editor's Note:  Please see Chasing Mail Pouch Barns by Eddie Roberts in the Barn Stories section.  See also various links under Barn Resources, particularly, for additional Mail Pouch information and Mail Pouch prints suitable for framing.