America’s Roadside Evangelist

Posted by | August 24, 2017

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.

Henry Harrison Mayes. Photo courtesy Museum of Appalachia.

Henry Harrison Mayes. Photo courtesy Museum of Appalachia.


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.




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.


Henry Harrison Mayes, roadside crosses, Middleboro KY, Museum of Appalachia, appalachia, appalachian history, mountains history

4 Responses

  • Sheri says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing, Dave!

  • Steve Britton says:

    Harrison and his wife Lily were close friends of my family as I was growing up. One of his large, heart shaped signs was erected on our property and still stands there today. It stands alongside US highway 58 in Gibson Station, Va.

  • Chad says:

    I just watched an episode of “American Pickers” which featured some art work by Mr. Mayes. How fun it was to see local art work (and soul full dedication) by generations gone by. I wish I had known the man.

  • John Van Kirk says:

    This country needs more of these kind of “modern day” Apostle Paul-like men and women who are not ashamed of the gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-4).
    In a day and age when the ACLU says to take down crosses…let’s put them up. There is ONLY one way and that’s not through ones own “legacy” but through the Life of Jesus Christ and His Blood shed for us on the Cross of Calvary.

    I looked in the Tomb of Jesus while in Jerusalem last year…still empty after 2000 years…repent brother and come back to Jesus Christ-King of Kings and Lord of Lords…ONLY ONE WAY

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