Ads on barns still crop up

Tobacco: Mail Pouch advertisements, which have become rare in the past few decades, remain on several Carroll County barns.

April 13, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,Sun Staff

For those who favor winding country roads over interstates, the sign is a familiar one: "CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO: TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST."

The message, painted on old wooden barns in bold block letters, is a fading reminder of a time before telephones and televisions, fax machines and pagers. Once hailed by Congress and featured at a World's Fair, the Mail Pouch ads have become scarce in Maryland and across the nation -- victims of changing times and a changing countryside.

"It's like having a piece of history in your front yard," said Melissa Phillips, whose barn on the outskirts of Manchester is one of the last in Carroll County to sport a Mail Pouch advertisement. "And it makes it real easy to tell people where you live."

Neither Phillips nor James Glazier, a Mount Airy beef cattle farmer, is sure how long their barns have featured the Mail Pouch logo, but odds are it's been several decades.

Brothers Aaron and Samuel Bloch of Wheeling, W.Va., created Mail Pouch chewing tobacco in 1890. The stogie manufacturers found that by adding licorice to cigar clippings, they were able to create a profitable product.

It was the local mailman who suggested the brothers market the chewing tobacco under the Mail Pouch name. By the turn of the century, the signs began appearing on barns throughout the country, but mainly in the [See Barns, 16b] East and Midwest.

The Bloch brothers gave farmers their choice of cash, tobacco or magazine subscriptions in exchange for the advertising. When this payment method became too complicated, the farmers were offered a nominal fee and a fresh coat of paint on their barns.

"It used to be you had to beg someone to let you put the sign on the side of their barn," said Harley E. Warrick, 74, who painted more than 20,000 barns in his 46-year career with Mail Pouch, including barns in Carroll, Garrett and St. Mary's counties. "They just didn't want that black paint and tobacco sign up there. It wasn't a collector's item."

As time lapsed, so did demand. Farms disappeared, swallowed by suburban sprawl. Barns burned or were replaced with cheaper metal ones.

In 1992, Warrick's deteriorating health persuaded the Belmont, Ohio, native to retire. Mail Pouch was bought and sold several times. Swisher International Inc., the Jacksonville, Fla., tobacco giant, owns the company.

Swisher canceled its barn-sign contracts when Warrick retired. "We didn't have anyone to replace him," said Swisher spokeswoman Mary Ruth.

"They gave up the sign business when the federal government stuck their noses in and started regulating them," says an angry Warrick. Preservation regulations restrict where new signs can be placed and how old ones may be protected. "People were afraid little kids would read the signs and start chewing tobacco. It's nonsense. I looked at 'em for over 40 years, and I never chewed tobacco. Didn't start chewing it until I retired.

"I was forced to quit my pipe. Got emphysema," explains Warrick, who gets his tobacco free from Swisher. "I didn't get a retirement. I guess you could say it's my gold watch."

Despite chewing tobacco's negative image, perpetuated by studies that link it to cancer, the old icon of rural America has endured. Time has transformed Warrick's work into art, a symbol of an era when spittoons were common. Federal lawmakers recognized the signs' nostalgic value when they exempted the Mail Pouch signs from the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 by declaring them national landmarks.

"Now that the signs are disappearing, people like them," Warrick says.

The Smithsonian Institution commissioned him to paint a Mail Pouch wall for the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal. More recently, Ted Koppel of ABC-TV's "Nightline" hired Warrick to paint the familiar advertisement on his barn in St. Mary's County.

Though faded like a pair of well-worn blue jeans, the Manchester Mail Pouch barn attracts a lot of attention. Admirers travel from near and far to see the sign.

"A lot of people pull over to have a look," said Phillips. "You can see them parked on the side of the road. Some take pictures. We had one guy use three rolls of film, taking black-and-white photos. Another man put an old car in front of it and took pictures for a magazine cover."

Phillips said she hopes to have the sign repainted soon. She's wary of her husband's offer to "touch it up" himself, but hiring a professional could prove difficult.

Warrick was the last painter employed to promote Mail Pouch tobacco on America's barns. Now he spends his days building birdhouses and bird feeders, decorating each with a replica of the Mail Pouch sign.

Warrick tried to train an apprentice a few years before he retired, but his protege stayed on the job less than a year. Understandable, considering the working conditions.

"I painted 11 or 12 barns a week when I worked alone, twice that many when I had a helper," Warrick says. "I worked year-round, even when it rained. As long as the rain wasn't hitting the barn, I painted it. I worked in zero weather, too."

His advice to Phillips: "Hire a local."

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