BELMONT, Ohio — A man who was among a dozen sign painters who advertised the joys of chewing tobacco on the sides of thousands of Appalachian and Midwestern barns has died.
Harley Warrick died of an aneurysm Friday in a Wheeling, W.Va., hospital, his daughter Lena Williams said Monday. He was 76.
Warrick and his fellow barn painters fanned out over America's heartland in teams of two, sometimes for months at a time, to cover rough, splintered wood with black, white and yellow signs reading: "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. Treat Yourself to the Best."
"They just traveled from town to town like traveling salesmen or hobos. They lived cheap, maybe they'd sleep in a truck or find a cheap hotel. They'd do a sign in maybe a half day," said Appalachian historian Danny Fulks.
Although Warrick officially retired about seven years ago, he continued to work until last month, when he put on his coveralls for a final repainting of a sign he made about 20 years ago in his hometown of Belmont, an Ohio River town across from Wheeling.
"A lot of local fans came out to watch him and talk to him. That was one of the nice things about Harley, he always enjoyed talking to the public," said Mike Stewart.
Warrick spent 55 years painting or retouching many of about 4,000 Mail Pouch signs, working in 13 states from Michigan and Missouri to New York.
"The first thousand were a little rough and, after that, you got the hang of it," he said in 1997.
When he was 21, Warrick fell in with a team of sign painters working on his family's dairy barn.
"I was just talking away with them and they said, 'We need somebody on one of our crews,' " he said. "I thought, 'That's better than milking 27 head of Jerseys every night and morning.' "
Warrick painted without using a guide, starting at the center with the E in "Chew."
With the help of an assistant, Warrick could paint a sign in about six hours, sometimes completing two barns a day, and he could repaint as many as five barns a day.
"He could tell you a story for each barn he painted," said Craig Nickerson of Swisher International Inc., which produces the Mail Pouch brand. The company stopped repainting barns in 1969, but Warrick continued upgrading the signs after they were designated national landmarks.
"He would always say, if you could find a job that you would do without being paid, that's what you should do," said his daughter. "I don't think he really thought about it as work. It was just what he did."