Before there were interstates, when everyone drove two lane roads at leisurely speeds, Burma Shave signs were posted all over the countryside in farmers’ fields. Five small red signs with white letters, about 100 feet apart, each containing 1 line of a 4 line couplet……and the obligatory 5th sign advertising Burma Shave, a popular shaving cream.
Appalachia had them, sure. Appalachia also had a roadsign painter for God by the name of Henry Harrison Mayes (1898-1986). Mayes, a Kentucky coal miner, began his roadside mission in 1917. Feeling that his life had been spared after a mining accident, Mr. Mayes decided to serve God by sharing the Good News with passing motorists. Mayes used money he made as a free-lance sign painter to support his advertising crusade, an effort that resulted in crosses being erected in forty-four states. All the while Mayes continued to work, full time for 43 years, for the Fork Ridge Coal Company in the mines of Mingo Hollow.
REMEMBER: IF YOU GO TO HELL IT’S YOUR FAULT
ADVERTISING GOD SINCE 1918
REGENERATION, SANCTIFICATION, HOLY GHOST BAPTISM
Mr. Mayes fashioned crosses by using homemade wooden molds and hand mixing and pouring concrete crosses in his backyard. After producing a substantial inventory he hoisted his artwork on his truck and set out for well traveled areas. Without permission, he would dig a hole on property near the highway and set his massive cross in place.
Mayes was known in his hometown of Middlesboro as the Sign Man or the Cross Builder. He lived near the valley’s center in a cross-shaped house, the ten commandments displayed on his front gate, with Jesus Saves painted in huge letters across the roof. He kept its lawn filled with cross-shaped signs. He created a massive cross of electric lights which to this day hangs about ten feet from the ground along a mountain at the base of the town’s main avenue.
In Harrison’s later life he became somewhat of a local celebrity riding his bicycle (which he called his “Jeep”) in parades with a huge sign on it reading “GET RIGHT WITH GOD” and “ADVERTISING GOD SINCE 1918.” He sometimes wore a white dress coat that had 278 crosses drawn on it with a ballpoint pen representing the number of denominations of churches he was aware of at the time.
Henry Harrison Mayes eventually attracted the attentions of Newsweek, Life, and Foxfire 9. He constructed and erected his concrete crosses for some sixty years. Many of his original crosses no longer exist because of highway expansion programs, traffic accidents, and natural erosion. Today, some of his items are on display in the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN. And his first bicycle can be seen at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, TN.