- Historic Sites
See Rock City
April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
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.
The Lady Bird Law paint-overs have mostly worn away; the paint Byers slapped on was made of tougher stuff.
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.