They were meant to direct motoring passersby to the charm of massive ancient rock formations on top of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn. Yet in time, the 900 giant, minimalist “See Rock City” signs painted on barns across the country developed their own fan base.
“I remember seeing ‘See Rock City’ ads painted on barn roofs ever since I was a child,” says Cecil Smith, the Indiana historian in Washington County in South Central Indiana. “They used to be everywhere, and then one day I realized there were only a few left.”
Karen Baker, senior director of marketing at Rock City, says the signs were first painted beginning in 1935. Eventually, they could be found from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, spread across 19 states.
That changed with the 1965 Highway Beautification Act. The legislation treated any roadside sign as billboard advertising, making it difficult to secure a new permit for a barn ad along a major highway. Barns have also succumbed to redevelopment or have collapsed under their own weight after 100 years of use.
Today, Rock City continues to maintain and repaint about 100 of the original barns, many of which are protected because they are considered historically significant.
In Fort Branch, Ind., Irv Spindler says he gets a $5 check every year from Rock City. That’s the payment he receives for allowing the north side of his barn to be painted with a “See Rock City” ad.
In 1980, Rock City stopped maintaining a barn ad in Owen County, Ind., but the owners continued to paint the iconic logo on their own.
Kim Van Hook’s family owned the property from the 1950s until 2005. Now their neighbor, Randy Smeltzer, owns the barn, and he still paints the sign, she says.
Van Hook says she did not think about the sign during her childhood. But later on when she moved next door in 1996, she noticed more and more people were beginning to stop and take pictures. That’s when she realized the sign had taken on a special significance.
Clark Beyers, who painted every “See Rock City” barn from 1935 until 1966, would show up unexpectedly when she was growing up, she says.
A self proclaimed “barn lizard,” Beyers painted as many as three barns a day using only a four-inch-wide brush. He also negotiated with the owners, who were usually more than willing to trade the sign for having a side or roof of their barn painted with the Rock City advertisement. Byers repainted every one of the Rock City signs many times until he retired.
“My dad had already died when his granddaughter (Brittany Van Hook) graduated high school, and she knew how much the sign meant to him,” Van Hook remembers. “She put on some of his clothes and climbed up on the roof so she could be sitting next to the sign for her graduation photo.”
At Rock City, Baker says people come in and refer to the barn ads every day.
“Many people I talk to, they are on their first trip to actually see the attraction that the barns have been ‘calling’ to them for years,” says Baker.
See Rock City, really! Rock City is an impressive geological formation and very popular tourist attraction that remains true to its origins. Visit www.seerockcity.com for more information.