When you travel the roads and highways of the Appalachian Mountains, you will find a cornucopia of pleasing sights to take in. But tucked in among the forests and hills you will find a curious collection of painted barns. On these barns, you will see the same message, and many of them were the work of a single person. Let’s look at how these unique works of advertising art known as the Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn came into being.

History of the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company

Our story starts in 1879, when grocery store owner Samuel Bloch, along with his brother’s help, launched the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company. Their goal was to produce cigars to sell in Samuel’s store as a side means of income.

The tobacco business was a hit, and soon it outgrew the grocery store. The tobacco company expanded its line, and in short time it had created Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco.

While the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company was enjoying a robust regional success, the brothers were finding expansion beyond that market a hard challenge. Somewhere along the way, the brothers struck upon an idea of advertising their products, and they hatched a creative plan in 1891.

The Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn Is Born

The plan the brothers came up with was a simple one. The idea was to paint advertising on barns that were scattered throughout the area, thus spreading the word of their tobacco products. They came up with a general design, and it seemed to work.

The wording was direct and to the point. It usually read, centered on the barn side in varying font sizes:


Mail Pouch


Treat Yourself to the Best

The background of the design featured a black or red solid color, and the lettering used a bold white or yellow color, with black shadowing for the “Mail Pouch Tobacco” section. This distinct approach created an advertisement that was easily visible from the roads of the area while still being pleasing to the eye.

A variation of the design sometimes had a vertical blue border on either side of the building, but for the most part, the works stayed true to this simple formula.

Good Deal for the Farmers

You may wonder why the farmers were okay with letting a tobacco company paint its advertising design on their barns. As it turns out, it was a good deal for the farmers.

The tobacco company paid the farmers for the use of their barns. They received, in today’s dollars, around $40 a year. While farmers tend to be practical and welcomed the free money, there was a more important benefit to be found.

A Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn had a good coat of protective paint. This coating allowed the barn to last much longer, and the farmer was able to keep it in active use for many years.

This increased lifespan served the needs of both the farmer and the tobacco company and was no doubt instrumental in the plan’s success. During its peak in the 1960s, you would find over 20,000 Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn advertisements scattered across 22 states.

Since the advertising only covered one or two of the sides of the barn (depending on the view from the road), the farmer could pick out the colors they wanted for the others. Farmers tended to pick red or black, but there are exceptions.

The tobacco company would even repaint the barns every few years, keeping the lettering sharp and the barn well protected.

The Man with the Brush

A handful of talented painters of the era painted the barns. Painters included Mark Tuley and Don Shires, among others. The artists usually signed their works in either the blue border (if it had one) or at a spot near the roof. It can be fun to spot the signature when you see a Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn.

While there were other painters in the employ of the tobacco company, there was one artist that was the most prolific by far. This man, Harley Warrick, is on record as having painted an incredible 20,000 barns in his lifetime.

If we do a little math, that works out to about one barn every day for over 54 years. Warrick has stated that it took him around 6 hours to complete a barn.  So, it was feasible that he could finish a barn and be ready to do it again the next day.

It is interesting to note that Warrick would always start a barn with the letter “E” found in the word “Chew” after the background color of black or red was applied. Given the volume of characters on the typical barn, Warrick was undoubtedly an efficient and talented painter.

The Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn Becomes an Official Historical Landmark

When Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Highway Beautification Act in 1965, this ended a lot of highway advertising. The practice of barn painting continued, but in 1974 the act was amended. The amendment allowed landmark signs painted on barns that were of historical significance. This amendment made the Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn an officially recognized historic landmark.

The End of an Era

The Swisher International group, who now owns Mail Pouch Tobacco, officially stopped the barn advertisements in 1992 when Warrick retired. It had a long and successful run during its hundred years of activity.

Other companies had similar advertising programs using painted barns. You could find Beech-Nut tobacco barns scattered throughout the area that followed a similar pattern. Often feed and grain stores would utilize the same pointed barn method for advertising their goods and services. However, none had the volume that Mail Pouch enjoyed during its century-long barn advertising program.

Sadly, many of these historic Mail Pouch Tobacco Barns have fallen on hard times.  These barns can be found in various states of decay through the country, with many others already demolished. Some groups are actively seeking to protect the barns that are left.

A few websites offer detailed information about the barns so that you can discover them yourself. Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn road trip, anyone?

The next time you see a Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn, take the time to appreciate this piece of American history. While tobacco products don’t enjoy the popularity today as they did in the past, there is little doubt of the economic importance of tobacco crops in many parts of the country, including the Appalachians. Besides, who doesn’t appreciate a friendly sign popping up when out touring the countryside. It’s almost like seeing an old friend.

What are some of your favorite historic sights around Appalachia? Let us know in the comments!