We called ourselves barn massagers, walldogs or barn lizards

Posted by | September 16, 2013

You may not be familiar with the Bloch Brothers of Wheeling, WV, but it’s a fairly sure bet that at some point in your life you’ve encountered a roadside barn painted with the large sign “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco  – Treat Yourself to the Best.”

Aaron and Samuel Bloch’s barn-painting advertising, begun in the 1890s, helped to make their “West Virginia coleslaw” one of America’s most recognized brands of the twentieth century.

Maurice Zimmerman (1906-1993), of Washington Courthouse, OH, began a lifelong career as a Mail Pouch sign painter in 1925.

When “Zim” graduated from high school in 1924, his brother Walter, an executive with the YMCA in Youngstown, urged him to come to Youngstown to find a job. Zim went to night school at the YMCA and worked during the day as an apprentice in a sign studio.

Mail Pouch Tobacco sign painters 1925

Six man Mail Pouch paint crew (l to r): Unknown, Bill Hart, Bill Bucks, Kenneth Walkerman, Carl Wunelle, and Maurice Zimmerman. Syracuse, NY, 1925.

In August of 1925, the younger Zimmerman traveled to Syracuse, NY, where he met Harry Herig, a sub-contractor hired by the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company to paint barns.  Herig assembled a six man crew, two painters manning each Model T truck.

From Syracuse they traveled west on main highways, the US and state highways, looking for barns to paint. The crews were assigned a certain territory and they would go to a town, maybe stay for as long as two weeks, and work that area. They would select their own locations or barns.

When Zim first started working for Harry Herig, the first of three contractors for whom he would paint, the men did their own leasing.

“We’d use our judgment as to how much we’d pay for the lease,” Zim recalls.

“We would pay anywhere from $2 to $10 and as little as $1, and some of the farmers thought they were getting rich quick in those days. Two men would do a sign in half a day, but you had to learn to work into it and develop a speed which would make money for your contractor.

Mail Pouch Tobacco sign being painted, Cambridge Ohio

Barn painting in process outside Cambridge, Ohio; Zimmerman was videotaped repainting the same barn many years later for America’s 1976 centennial celebration.

“The equipment, including the truck, was provided by the tobacco contractor, but the expenses were our own. We put a lot of miles on that old Ford. I still wonder how the truck stayed in working condition. Often the Model T would just barely make a hill.

“I especially remember the St. Clairsville hill when it was snowy and icy. I don’t know which was worse, going up or coming down. But we always made it,” Zim remembers.

The paint crew used Dutch Boy white lead, which came in 100 pound kegs.

“We opened untold hundreds of those kegs – those steel kegs of white lead.  We stored our mixed paint in 5 and 10 gallon milk cans. The paint was a heavy paste, and we mixed it with linseed oil to a thick consistency. Then we thinned it with gasoline. That was our paint thinner – gasoline.

“For the black paint, dry lampblack would be mixed with the Linseed oil. We put it on just as heavy as it would go on. You couldn’t make your paint thin because some of those barns would soak it in. It was like painting on a blotter sometimes, and they were very rough,” Zim said.

The whole side of the barn was not painted, he explained, and the painter used a process of spotting on the letters. “That’s where you work the letters into the space where the lettering goes. Then take a brush and make the shape of the letter. Then you spot on that color, white or yellow.”

Before starting a job, Zim said, “We’d get back and visualize the barn and picture that sign in your mind. You’d pick out a board or window, or something to use as a guideline, and spot on the letters, like CHEW, and always begin at the top. It’s in rough form when you get it done.” He never used a stencil to letter in a barn.

The words Chew and Treat Yourself To The Best were almost always in white, and Mail Pouch Tobacco in yellow. “Sometimes a farmer insisted on a red sign. That was a bother, and more expensive. We had to shade the letters in black so they would stand out. Occasionally I did an oval background for the sign.”

“It was the only company that I knew of that did that kind of barn advertising,” Zim recalled. “We called ourselves barn massagers, walldogs or barn lizards. We called our big six-inch brushes mops and our overalls skins. Our skins would get stiff and crusted like suits of armor. When they got so bad we could hardly get into them, we’d throw them away buy new ones.”

“There weren’t many environmentalists around in those days to complain about road signs. Oh, once in a while we’d get some static – usually from women – not about the sign itself, but about chewing tobacco. Sometimes we’d find a lady barn owner, who liked to chew tobacco.

“Pay? When we started it was $50 a week, and we had to pay all our own expenses out of that. About 23 years ago [ed.-1961] I was getting $115 a week, and still had to subtract meals and lodging.”

Mail Pouch Tobacco barn sign painted by Maurice Zimmerman

Zimmerman family barn on Creston Road in Cambridge, OH. Painted by Maurice Zimmeran, his son, grandson, and great grandson. (Most recently repainted in spring 2003.)

There were the times too, when Zim and his crew were left stranded with not much money left while they waited for a Western Union money order from the tobacco company to catch up with them.

“We worked the year around, with just a week off at Christmas, and it was real barnstorming!” Zim recalls.

In more than 35 years, Maurice and his crew painted 12,000 barns. Neither rain nor snow nor ill-tempered barnyard beasts could stay them from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Their signs became one of the hallmarks of rural America.

–adapted from “The Barns Remain, But the Artists Are Forgotten!” by Gerald P. Carl, 1984, online at www.ohiobarns.com/mpbarns/hist/mz/mz.html

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