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Iowa Barn Journal


America's Unicorns: Mail Pouch Barns


Kelly Ann Butterbaugh

Contributed by Kelly Ann Butterbaugh


All good things come to an end. When it comes to America's history, this is a bitter fact against which some must fight. Whether they collect antiques, record family histories, or fight to save landmarks, these people refuse to allow the grandeur of America's past to end without a fight. In a time when farmlands are devoured by developers and the view from a highway resembles a Monopoly board rather than a Bierstadt painting, those who relish America's rural past must fight even harder to preserve it. As the sight of pastoral cows upon a sloping hill becomes America's contemporary unicorn, its the country's barns that tug at the heartstrings and beg to be photographed.


Americans flock to Disney World, vacation at the shores, and visit the nation's landmarks, but few things inspire 500 mile drives with cameras in hand as do Mail Pouch Barns. One of the most highly sought after sights along a rural highway is the vision of their white letters resting upon a fading black background. No longer do the words promote a now tabooed habit; instead they represent a simpler time. Mail Pouch barns might be fading dinosaurs left along the roadsides, but once they were the kings of advertising.

In 1890 the Bloch Brothers, owners of Mail Pouch Tobacco, decided to take advertising to a new location, outdoors. The predecessors of billboards, barns alongside the roads seemed to be the obvious locations for advertising. Offering to the owners a free paint job, sometimes a small cash settlement, and a plethora of free samples, the Bloch Brothers began their advertising campaign.

Beginning with a six man crew, the company set out to paint advertisements but instead created what would be nostalgic gold. Repainting barns as the paint faded and often painting over previous advertisers, the slogan "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco Treat Yourself to the Best" dominated barn sides until the 1960s when both the ban on tobacco advertisements and the 1965 Federal Highway Beautification Act squelched the painting. The outdoor advertising campaign officially ended 1969.


Of all the names associated with Mail Pouch tobacco barns, Harley Warrick is easily the most recognizable. With a relaxed demeanor and a willingness to talk for hours about his experiences, Warrick vaulted himself to stardom amongst the Mail Pouch barn enthusiasts.

Most people who call themselves Mail Pouch enthusiasts made the pilgrimage to meet Mr. Warrick before his passing. Painting birdhouses and other items in his retirement, he always had time for a story.

One barn enthusiast explains, "Meeting Harley Warrick was one of the best adventures. It was a real journey of history and life...He had a wonderful sense of humor and one of those grins that made you smile like a school girl. I couldn't help but hug him before I left."

Beginning his career as a painter after returning from World War II, Warrick saw the opportunity to work for Mail Pouch while working at his parents' dairy farm. As a Mail Pouch crew worked to cover his family's barn, Warrick talked with them about their task. That afternoon he left the farm to join the painting crew and to begin his fifty-five year career that led him to paint or repaint the familiar slogan over 20,000 times.

The barns were painted free hand, and although Warrick admits that "the first 1,000 were a little rough" he eventually became a master, completing a barn in four hours. For each barn, Warrick began in the center with the 'E' in the word "CHEW" and then moved to paint the 'H' and the 'W.' One interviewer asked why he began this way. Warrick responded, "I always like to sign my work before I begin. You see, my name is Harley E. Warrick-H.E.W." It was as if he were meant for the job.


Unfortunately, Harley Warrick retired from repainting the barns at the request of their owners in 1993. Since the advertising campaign no longer existed and Warrick never found a suitable replacement for himself, the Mail Pouch barns have been left to their own devices. Some have already given way to their natural demolition and sit decrepitly advertising the still manufactured brand of tobacco. Others have been meticulously maintained by their owners. Regardless of their condition, all the barns have one thing in common. They are highly collectable.

How does one collect barns? The answer is with rolls and rolls of film. Barn collectors are avid photographers of their beloved structures. They devote weekends to the search for a new Mail Pouch barn.

"I'm keeping a piece of history alive for as long as I can. In another twenty years very few barns will be left," explains Nancy Avolese, an avid barn collector heralding from a farm in Middletown, PA.

Beginning as an undergraduate project, Avolese has photographed 50-75 Mail Pouch barns and plans to further her collection as time allows. "I figure it is part of my retirement plan," she says.

To become a barn collector one must have a camera ready at any moment. Mail Pouch advertisements crop up on the sides of even the most dilapidated barns in the most rural parts of the countryside. During a work related trip through Pennsylvania, Avolese spied a Mail Pouch sign on the side of the road, but her camera wasn't in the car. Determined not to miss out on the opportunity, she returned to the spot after her trip with camera in hand. This is what makes a Mail Pouch barn collector stand out: determination, patience, and a keen eye.

Another avid collector is Elmer Napier of West Virginia. Like most collectors, he has been to nearly every state with a Mail Pouch barn as well as having met Harley Warrick personally. Boasting over 400 barns in his collection, Napier plans his trips carefully so that his route will cross the path of a new barn to photograph.

For most collectors, the most difficult part of their task is finding the barns. Websites are devoted to listing the locations of the barns, but the length of the drive is often the hurdle. Once sighted, photographing is usually able to be done from the road, and most owners readily allow a collector to enter their property if needed. In fact, most people who own the barns not only welcome pictures but welcome questions as well. However, once in awhile an oddity is found.

Of Napier's various experiences most have been positive, although he did encounter one of the aforesaid oddities. He explained that once he stopped in Adams County, PA to photograph a barn from the road. Beside the barn was an antique shop, and while he was photographing a man emerged from the shop. Although Napier was on the public street making the photograph public domain, the man demanded of him $5 for the photograph of the barn. It was at that point that Mr. Napier packed his camera, including the photographs he had taken, and left.

These stories, good or bad, create the database of typical information that Mail Pouch barn collectors will relay to anyone who asks. They hold a fondness for these fading barns that represent a time long gone, and they are growing in number. Each year the Mail Pouch Organization meets in Harley Warrick's Ohio hometown to recant such stories and share pictures. Their membership is approximately 114 people from at least twelve states and two foreign countries showing that the love for these barns transcends government lines.

"Barns hold a gentle sentiment for us," explains Avolese.


Most of the existing Mail Pouch barns are well-documented. Even the most faded sign has been photographed by Mail Pouch enthusiasts. To find a hidden gem is almost unheard of today. "Earlier, what really excited me was to find a barn that wasn't on the list," Elmer Napier notes.

However, the barns are made of fading paint and aged lumber. Like all barns they are slowly fading into America's history, and the need for them has vanished. Their message is no longer needed, and in Ohio much debate has arisen about whether or not they are historical markers or illegal tobacco advertisements. For many of the barns, their accompanying farms are no longer tended and they serve only as reminders of what once surrounded them.

Yet, like all things collectable they started out simply. It was free paint to the owners and free advertisement to the company. One owner, Wilma Fisher, said, "The reason we had it put on in the first place was to get the barn painted. It was just plain raw lumber." No one would ever have guessed that decades later the barn would be part of an iconic collection.

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