Like most people who make history, Clark Byers had something else on his mind. When the young sign painter loaded his pickup with ladders and paint buckets one day in 1936 and set out to persuade farmers to let him paint an advertising message on their barns, it would not have occurred to him that he would help define an era in American folk culture. But the thirty-year odyssey that began that day made an unknown tourist attraction world famous, and the slogan “See Rock City” a ubiquitous phrase familiar even to those who have no idea what it means.
The tourist attraction was Rock City Gardens, a ten-acre confection of massive stone formations and deep crevices on the cliffs of Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga, Tennessee. Opened to the public in 1932, it languished in obscurity until Byers began painting his signs. For Americans with the newfound freedom of paved roads leading in all directions and automobiles to drive on them, Rock City and places like it provided the final, necessary ingredient: someplace to go. Down through the South they came, from Milwaukee and Chicago, from the small towns of Indiana, the smokestack belts of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the crowded cities of the Northeast, as motels and tourist traps sprang up to greet them.
The glory days of the barns were the 1940s through the 1960s, when as many as nine hundred of them heralded Rock City from the Florida line to the Canadian border, from the Carolinas to Texas. For millions of Middle Americans the sight of one is instant nostalgia, pungent with memories of long-ago family vacation trips over twisting two-lane highways to the Great Smoky Mountains or Florida.
Actually, it might have been 1935 or 1937 instead of 1936 when Byers began painting barns—he doesn’t remember for sure, and Rock City has no exact record—but he well remembers when he quit, because in 1968, while painting a sign near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, he made contact with a high-voltage wire. The experience put him out of action for months, and when he recovered he decided it was time for a new career. The barn-painting program was winding down anyway, because of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965—the so-called Lady Bird Law—and the nearly complete interstate system, which was luring travelers away from the old highways. The new law even forced Rock City to paint over many of its signs. Currently it maintains signs on only about seventy-five barns.
Although Rock City has long been overshadowed by its own advertising, it remains a place of unique charm. Laid out with flower-bordered trails through deep stone gorges, over high swinging bridges and along cliff tops that offer a view of seven states, Rock City Gardens is an oddly pleasing blend of magnificent natural beauty and entrepreneurial naiveté. The naiveté comes in the form of trailside elf figurines, storybook characters, and Fairyland Caverns, a man-made “cave” featuring black-lighted dioramas of nursery-rhyme scenes. This is family entertainment born before Disney World and MTV, and it still has the power to fascinate children—and their parents.
I traced Byers’s steps nearly sixty years later. My initial motivation was much the same as his: purely commercial. I’ve always been attracted to old barns and abandoned houses, but it was Rock City’s participation that made my project possible. Bill Chapin, the president of See Rock City, Inc., had a long-time dream of a book of his signature barns, and he was willing to put up the money to photograph them. Guided by an old set of file cards, Rock City’s only record of barn locations, I drove thirty-five thousand miles during an eighteen-month period, searching out more than five hundred sites in fifteen states and discovering about 250 barns still standing in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Byers says there were barns in nineteen states at one time, but he’s a little hazy about just which states they were. Michigan once had a number of Rock City barns, and I’ve heard reports of barns in Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin as well, though I’ve never seen them.
With those thirty-five-year-old, often sketchy records and the occasional hearsay report as my only sources of information, finding the sites was an intriguing piece of detective work. Barns have burned, blown down, been bulldozed for highway construction and subdivisions, or simply collapsed from disuse and disrepair. To complicate things, highways have been changed, rerouted, and renamed.
Often the only way to find a site was to find someone who had known the property owner.
“Do you remember Bill Jones, who had a place out on Highway Eleven south of here?”
“Oh, yeah, knew him well. He and my daddy used to go fishing together. Good ol’ feller. He’s dead now.”
“Well, he had this barn on his farm, with a sign that said ‘See Rock City.’ Here’s an old picture of it.”
“Sure, I remember that barn. Fact is, I helped him take it down, back around 1975. It had got all rotten, y’know. Wasn’t safe.”
I also learned to take information with a grain of salt. The people most familiar with an area can be the least observant. In Robbinsville, North Carolina, a gas station attendant told me, “It used to be right down the road here, ‘bout half a mile. They tore it down last year.” His directions were perfect. However, not only was the barn still standing, but it had just been repainted and was one of those rare barns with “See Rock City” signs on both sides!
Along the way I found nineteen barns that were not in Rock City’s records. A few of them were located through leads from local residents; others I discovered while traveling to known sites. Still more must exist, and I hope someday to find them. It was always exciting to round a bend and see a Rock City barn for the first time, but it was far more thrilling to find one that had slipped through the cracks of history.
Fortunately, the Lady Bird Law paint-overs have mostly weathered away, leaving the signs visible once again. The lampblack-and-linseed-oil paint Clark Byers and his crew slapped around was tougher stuff. I’ve seen barns that appeared to be held together solely by the Rock City paint. It lasted better on boards than on tin and best of all on the north-facing end of a barn. Metal roofs eventually rust, even with a good coat of paint, but the black background and white letters oxidize at different rates, so a sign is often quite readable in two different shades of rust.
I began the project with some idealism, I suppose, even though I’m a country boy and should have known better. Expecting to find prosperous, storybook farmyards, I often came upon depressing scenes of rural desolation. Most of the barns were far from any farmhouse. Many were dilapidated, some overgrown with brush. I took what each situation gave me and tried to use it to make a photograph that expressed the spirit of the place.
Doing this, I learned to treasure the dignity and individuality of each old barn, to see beauty even in the isolation in which so many of them are ending their days. I learned that they wanted to be photographed in a direct, documentary way, without artifice. “This is the way we are,” they seemed to say. “Please let us speak for ourselves.”
So here they are.