Ask Hamilton: Rock City Barns

Dear Hamilton,

Growing up, I always noticed barns on the side of the highway painted with advertisements for Rock City. I came across one of these barns while on the road the other day and it was a pleasant surprise to see it still standing, not to mention nostalgic. I’m curious how many of these barns there are, and how exactly this advertising campaign came to be.


Driving Down Memory Lane

rock city barn

A team from See Rock City poses in front of a barn they repainted in honor of the attraction’s 90th anniversary, 2023

Photos Courtesy of Rock City

Dear Driving Down Memory Lane,

Rock City barns are a nostalgic sight for many, which is no wonder given how widespread they once were! Hundreds of these barns once dotted the highways as part of a campaign that originated nearly a century ago.

The clever idea to use country barns as billboards dates back even further. The Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company is credited with popularizing this concept when it began touting its Mail Pouch chewing tobacco on the sides of barns at the turn of the 20th century. Other companies took notice and began to follow suit, creating a boom in billboard barns that conveniently coincided with the rise of the automobile. More Americans hitting the road skyrocketed the visibility of these roadside advertisements, which would only continue to grow.

Billboard barns weren’t just successful, they were also cost effective. All that companies needed for their signage to receive prime positioning on the highway was a couple buckets of paint and a property owner willing to make a deal. The owner would receive payment, often in the form of complimentary products or passes, and a free paint job in exchange for letting the company paint an advertisement on their barn.

vintage photo of rock city barn

Clark Byers, pictured left, in front of the first Rock City barn in Kimball, TN

Photos Courtesy of Rock City

Beginning in the 1930s, a new wave of billboard barns began popping up across the Midwest and the South, prompting passersby to “See Rock City.” Bold block lettering painted in white on a black background caught the eye of motorists, and word of the mountaintop attraction – and the barns themselves – began to spread.

The Rock City barns were the result of a marketing brainstorm initiated by Rock City founder, Garnet Carter. The first barn that kicked off this campaign was located west of Chattanooga in Kimball, TN, its sign reading “35 Miles to Rock City.”

This sign and the hundreds more that soon joined it were the handiwork of Clark Byers, a self-taught painter from Chattanooga. He quickly became a local legend as he braved bulls, precarious rooftops, and all manners of weather on the job. In addition to the iconic slogan of “See Rock City,” Byers added taglines like “World’s 8th Wonder” and “See 7 States From Rock City Atop Lookout Mt.”

rock city barn

Byers spent three decades painting barns for Rock City and, after being shocked by electrical lines while on the job, he understandably retired. He concluded his career having painted 900 barns across 19 states – now that’s impressive!

Rock City wasn’t the only local attraction to jump aboard this advertising trend. Its Lookout Mountain neighbor, Ruby Falls, also took advantage of the area’s many barns, painting its own slogan against a bright red background in a fitting homage to its name.

However, the heyday of billboard barns would soon come to a sudden halt in 1965 with the passing of the Highway Beautification Act. Nicknamed “Lady Bird’s Bill” after First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson’s active efforts to beautify the nation’s highways, this legislation limited the presence of billboards by prohibiting advertising media within 600 feet of a federal highway. As a result, many Rock City signs were buried under a plain layer of paint and billboard barns became symbolic of a bygone era.


rock city barn

Clark Byers and assistant paint a barn in Alabama

Photo Courtesy of the Chattanooga Public Library

Thankfully, not all was lost. Ten years later, the act would be amended to preserve the historic significance of “landmark signs,” including advertisements painted onto barns. While the barns were now protected under law, in the following decades, many would be demolished due to construction or simply fade with time.

But as you saw – there are still Rock City barns standing today! Over 40 have been sighted across the South and even as far north as Indianapolis. Byers passed away in 2004, but his legacy lives on in these barns and the painters who honor his handiwork each time they add a fresh coat of paint.

As they continue to stand the test of time, these historic landmarks will surely remain a recognizable part of America’s landscape for years to come!

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, TN

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