Last of Barn Painters

Harley Warrick left his mark on rural America in Mail Pouch barn paintings.

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by Fred Hendricks
This weathered Mail Pouch barn was photographed along an Ohio byway.

Mail Pouch Tobacco barns were once common along American highways and country roads. The barn advertising campaign was launched by the West Virginia Mail Pouch chewing tobacco company (Bloch Brothers Tobacco Co.). The program ran from 1891 to 1992. In its height during the early 1960s, thousands of Mail Pouch barns were spread across 22 states.

gray shed advertisement

Initially, barn owners were paid between $1 and $2 per year for the advertisement. In 1913 dollars, that equates to $20-40 today. More importantly, the barn received a fresh coat by a team of painters. The Mail Pouch message was painted on one or two sides, depending on road visibility.

With the passage of time, Mail Pouch barns are slowly disappearing from the landscape. The remaining barns with the familiar advertising slogan, Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco, Treat Yourself to the Best has become American folk art.

barn in countryside

Painter becomes a legend in his own time

While several men painted the iconic slogan on barns for the tobacco company, Harley Warrick is the best known. After returning from World War II in 1946, Harley helped on the family farm. Shortly thereafter, he saw a man painting a sign on his father’s barn. When the painter asked if he was looking for a job, Harley said “yes.” He joined the crew on the spot and started earning about $32 a week.

Over his 55-year career, Harley painted or retouched more than 20,000 Mail Pouch signs. He and a partner traveled together, sometimes sleeping in the back of a pickup truck or cheap motel. The partner painted the black background and Harley lettered the advertisement. They were able to paint two barns a day, taking about six hours per barn. The pipe-smoking painter was known as a salty character. When queried about his work, he responded, “I don’t paint barns, I paint signs on barns.”

man on scaffolding in front of red barn

Harley’s work has been exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution. Additional fame came when he appeared on Good Morning America and On the Road with Charles Kuralt. Harley was commissioned by TV newsman Ted Koppel to paint a barn on his Cross Manor historic estate in St. Inigoes, Maryland.

In 1971, Harley painted a Mail Pouch sign on a building for the movie, “Fool’s Parade.” While painting the sign in Moundsville, West Virginia, Harley met actor James Stewart. He told Stewart about a sign he painted on a building for the actor’s father, who lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

newly painted red barn with white accents

Number one fan is a “barnstormer”

older gentleman with mailbox

Art Seaman, who lives in Shelby, Ohio, became friends with the painter. Through this relationship and admiration, Seaman became an avid collector of Mail Pouch memorabilia. “I attended an event at Malabar Farm State Park in Lucas, Ohio in 1988,” Art recalls. “At this annual gathering, I saw Harley Warrick paint three large Mail Pouch Tobacco signs. The signs were auctioned as a fundraiser in support of Malabar Farms. I gained an appreciation for his work and began collecting Mail Pouch mementos that he had painted.”

Left: red and white mail pouch bag Right: small barn shaped box

A Seaman-Warrick friendship flourished through the years. Harley was unable to attend Art and Myrna Seaman’s 20th wedding anniversary celebration. Myrna had previously requested a special wall-mounted red enamel barn replica. Red enamel was not a normal background color used in Mail Pouch barn advertisements. Harley surprised the couple by presenting Myrna’s requested replica following their celebration.

red barn wall plaque

After Harley’s death in 2000, a club was formed to preserve his legendary accomplishments. “The club became known as Mail Pouch Barnstormers,” Art says. “Members are spread over 15 states and Canada, and meet annually for a picnic in Harley’s home community in Belmont, Ohio.”

long white bearded man on street with two kids in background

Mail Pouch folk art lives on through the Barnstormers Club and remaining barns throughout the country. FC

Freelance writer Fred Hendricks of Mansfield, Ohio, covers a vast array of subjects relating to agriculture. Email Fred at

  • Updated on May 5, 2022
  • Originally Published on Aug 18, 2021
Tagged with: barnstormer, Bloch Brothers Tobacco Co., mural, tobacco
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