In the late eighteen hundreds a group of six men were hired by Wheeling, West Virginia brothers Aaron and Samuel Bloch to advertise their tobacco product. Those men, who called themselves barn massagers, wall dogs and barn lizards, painted tobacco signs on barns located along busy roads in rural Ohio and West Virginia, which started a Nationwide trend for barn advertising.
At the height of the barn advertising’s popularity in the 1920’s through the ‘60’s, these men painted over 12,000 barns, and their iconic “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” logos became a familiar part of the rural landscape. In 1965 congress passed the Highway Beautification Act prohibiting signs and billboards within 660 feet of the road and many of these barns were painted over.
On this segment of County Lines, Producer Renee Wilde meets one man who is helping to resurrect this rural tradition.
Traffic is rushing along State Route 81 a few miles east of the city of Lima. Just a stones throw off this busy highway, Scott Hagan is using a small paintbrush to outline of the words ‘Welcome to Allen County’ across the side of a large red barn.
Hagan is known as the Barn Artist, and he just might be the one of the last remaining people carry on this rural tradition. Hagan never considered himself an artist growing up, and had no formal art training. One day when he was 19, he decided to paint a picture of the tasmanian devil on the side of his dad’s barn in Belmont County.
Hagan says, ”I told dad about it and I went in to get the ladder. I was setting up my ladder and he was mowing the pasture just below the barn, and while I’m putting the ladder up I heard him shut down the mower, and the tractor ,and in a real calm voice he said, ‘Hey, I don’t want a devil on my barn’. So I think it took another week or two to go back to the drawing board and figure out what can I paint. I want people to like it. So I painted the Ohio State block O and brutus mascot on the barn.”
Since then, Hagan has painted 600 barns. He’s also following in the footsteps of another Belmont County resident, Harley Warrick. A man who was famous for painting the iconic Mail Pouch Tobacco signs on rural barns throughout the country. Those remaining hand painted barns are now listed as historic landmarks in Ohio.
“A lot of what I’m doing, they’re not working farms any more,” Hagan tells me. “Some are, some aren’t. But more and more it’s just a building that people happen to own, and that’s a little bit sad to see. But it’s really fun and an enjoyable time when it’s still a working farm and people are using it for farming.”
Hagan fondly recalls one of his last jobs, “I was just in Connecticut, a couple weeks ago, doing two silos, and I painted a flag on the guys barn. They own an ice cream shop. I enjoyed meeting the folks there and seeing what they do, making the ice cream. One brother is still running the farm. He’s 60 years old and out baling hay, square bales, by himself. I jumped on the wagon one day, to help him for an hour, just to say I did it, you know. We still text almost daily now, ‘hey how ya doing’, and he’ll ask me how things are in Ohio. It’s so much fun to meet the people.”
“Outside of barn painting one of my favorite things to do is, I do a lot of work for schools and their gymnasiums,” Hagan continues. “I really like doing those, because I get to transform the gym. High School gyms, especially in a lot of areas that I work, especially in the rural area, it is really the center focal point of the community. It’s where everything happens. There’s a sense of pride that goes into that, and that’s what the gym is, it’s the pride of the community.”
Hagan has come a long way from the kid who wanted to paint a cartoon character on the side of his family barn. For the past 20 years, his work keeps him criss-crossing Ohio, and all over the the U.S., as traditional barn advertising is experiencing a small resurgence in popularity.
When I ask him if his first Ohio Bicentennial barn project where he painted the logos on one barn in every county had an impact on the revival of barn advertising, Hagan says “You know I’d like to say I had a big part of the resurgence in a sense. I think one reason why I’ve been busy, is because no one really uses a brush anymore. No one else wants to do that type of work. Those days are just gone. It can be printed. It’s faster and more economical and just easier for the most part. But what I do is just a lot different.”
In 2017 legislation was passed to designate the barn as Ohio’s Official State Historical Architectural Structure.
County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities.