The most successful advertising campaigns met their customers where they were. The American road was the place for personal vehicles in the mid-twentieth century. The most memorable billboards in the country in that era were those painted on the sides and roofs of barns in the South.
The hand-painted billboards for ice water at Wall Drug in the upper Midwest and the mysterious The Thing signs that line I-10 through the Southwest are both examples of how the Rock City barns became as famous as the landmark itself. These slices of Americana are at risk of disappearing entirely due to a variety of factors.
On a clear day, visitors can see seven states from Rock City, which sits atop Lookout Mountain, along Tennessee's border with Georgia. It was founded by Garnet Carter, who moved to the mountain in 1894, and first planned to develop it into a neighborhood called Fairyland, after his wife Frieda's love of German folklore and mythical creatures. Frieda developed a trail and gardens while Garnet was working on bringing his vision for the 700-acre mountain site to life. The Carters decided to open Rock City Gardens to the public because they wanted visitors to be interested in the scenery.THE GASTRO OBSCURA BOOK
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The expansion of the road system in Tennessee in the 1920s paved the way for Rock City. In 1922, the state only had 244 miles of state roads, and by 1926 there was a 6,000-mile network. Travel was seen as a luxury during the Great Depression of 1929. Carter had to find a way to draw people to his mountain top.
Carter hired a sign painter to spread the word about Rock City. Mail Pouch, a West Virginia tobacco company, painted advertisements on existing barns instead of constructing billboards. Byers was tasked with convincing farmers to let him redecorate. Those who offered up their rooftops were compensated with free entry into Rock City, promotional items, or sometimes a rental fee of $3 to $5 a year.
The first Rock City barn, with its black background and white block letters, appeared in Tennessee in 1935 or 1936. Byers worked quickly, carefully crawling up ladders and painting freehand, and could complete up to three barns per day. He was chased by dogs and even a longhorn steer over the course of his career, and it wasn't easy: there was the risk of falling from the roof. From Michigan to Texas, there were 900 barns.
Rock City saw visitor numbers increase in the years following the barn ad campaign after the country came out of the Great Depression.
The barns told people about it, according to Bill Chapin, the current CEO of Rock City. He believes that the experience that Uncle Garnet and Aunt Freida provided made their guests the biggest promoter.
The advertising advantage offered by the barns didn't last long. The creation of the interstate highway system in 1956 made the two-lane rural roads almost obsolete and ushered in a golden age of American travel.
The Johnson administration placed restrictions on billboards like the Rock City barns because they were found to be unattractive. The barns that were located in commercial zones had to be painted over. Byers did the work again.
An accident forced Byers into retirement in 1969. Sequoyah Caverns, which was opened in 1965, had its own painted barns.
Rock City, which gets half a million visitors a year, doesn't depend on painted barns for promotion. Many of the original 900 billboards have disappeared, the barns painted over, or even been destroyed by tornadoes. The American Sign Museum has one that was disassembled and reassembled in Kentucky. Rock City now advertises with traditional billboards and online ads, but most of the original barns remain in Tennessee.
Roy Davis works for R&R outdoor. Sometimes he reaches out to the owners of the land to repaint their signs. They are aware of their role in roadside Americana. It helps preserve that and a part of their family history. The reason the husband and wife bought the farm was because it had a Rock City barn on it, says Davis.
If the barn falls down, they can rebuild it, but we cannot paint the top with a Rock City because it doesn't meet the new standards.
Rock City wants to continue the legacy. The restoration of three original barns with a new design and Rock City's website was a result of a partnership with the TennesseeTitans football team. The general locations of the barns are marked on a map by the company. You never really know if you'll find one until you get there, but some can be found using the internet. It is like searching for buried treasure.
The Rock City barns are a reminder of a different time that is far away from the endless stretch of highway billboards. They make you feel like you're in the car with your family instead of staring at a screen.