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A Real American Idol Celebrates 100th: Mail Pouch

By Jack Goddard

Milestones Vol 32 No. 2

What Beaver County Americana icon is quietly celebrating its 100th birthday this year? Here's a hint. It's estimated that a dozen or more dotted our landscape once but now only three are known to have survived time to celebrate its centennial.

They were a favorite for many years to any kid who ever rode in the back seat of a car. Then the government stepped in and ended the romance. They were once so popular that a British salesman, visiting the United States for the first time, was asked by a reporter what our country was famous for over there. Without a hint of hesitation he replied, "Beautiful women and Mail Pouch barns."

The poor barns are slowly fading away due to neglect, but their popularity to some hasn't. Enter the Mail Pouch Barn Stormers. This preservation society, headed by Lonnie Schnauffer of neighboring Butler County is making great strides in attempting to save these nostalgic national treasures. The Gibsonia man said he was visiting another "barnstormer" or Mail Pouch barn enthusiast in 2001, Cleve Costly of Ohio.

The latter had already been painting colorful Mail Pouch barns murals on decorated walls at local fairs and festivals. "It was Cleve who pointed me in the right direction," according to Schnauffer. Cleve introduced Lonnie to the last big-name Mail Pouch barn painter, the intriguing Harley Warrick of Belmont, Ohio. This trio wondered if anyone else had the love they had for these cherished structures.

They decided to hold a picnic to find out. Warnck, however, died in November 2001, just months prior to their first scheduled meeting and picnic in the summer of 2002. "We didn't have a clue as what to expect now," Schnauffer pointed out. The North Hills engineer said he and Cleve Costly were "pleasantly surprised" as about 45 people showed up at this grassroots meeting. It just started snowballing from there. "Talk got around, and we had over 70 the next year." The membership roll's total is pushing 140 today ---------only six years after those three got together.
"We encourage that anyone having an interest in Mail Pouch barns to come to our 2007 annual meeting and picnic at the Belmont, Ohio, school gym. It'll be held on Saturday, July 28. "Ha," he asserted, "Just be sure though to bring a covered dish, so we have enough to eat." Belmont is off I-70, 15 minutes from the state line.

Warrick, up until he retired in 1992, repainted barns in Beaver County, other Western Pennsylvania areas, Ohio, West Virginia and nine other states. When his team would do the work, his initials "HW" would go up on the blue border or in the middle just under the roof. They were put under the overhanging eaves so that they would be protected from inclement weather or the hot summer sun. When he left, the barn-painting program was abolished.
He, with his ever-present pipe, was a popular figure. Warrick, who preferred bib overalls to coveralls, had a fountain of comic anecdotes he'd picked up over the years. For instance, when he was asked what it was like painting in cold weather, he replied with a smile, "We just added more thinner to the paint ---- and, maybe a little Seagrams to the painter. It'd then all turn out fine." Another story had him and his gang painting a barn in the Ohio flat-lands. It was a bone-chilling windy day. A strong gust blew the roof away in splinters. The helpers said, "Well, guess we're done for the day." Warrick is said to have bellowed, "Hell no! This wall is still standing." So, they continued to paint.
Then there was the time when a candy company owner wanted the familiar icon on the side of his manufacturing plant. He bet the men a steak dinner that they couldn't do it in a day, Barnstormer Elmer Napier says. "Needless to say," Napier chuckled, "The whole gang enjoyed a steak dinner that evening."

Finally, there's this tale. There was a rule that another worker on the scaffold couldn't touch the painter. If you did you had to buy him a drink. Harley admitted that when he was hot and thirsty, "wanting to wet my whistle, I'd find a way to get touched." Scott Hagan, another Barnstormer laments, " sure do miss the guy." Hagan does some private re-paints in the area, his last being in Marietta, Ohio. "Harley was amazing," Hagan explained. "He could paint a barn in four hours!"

Hagan said Warrick was his mentor. "He taught me how to do them. We'd size up the barn first and start in the middle, working our way out. For example, the first letter in the "chew" line is "e" then, in the second, it's the "p" in pouch." Hagan went on saying that Warrick was milking cows when a gang asked him to join. He had painted in the service so was confident he could do it. Hagan laughed and said Warrick figured it'd, "beat milking cows."

In the meantime, Warrick had no idea of how much excitement he generated. It was like the recent book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven but in real life. One never realizes, no matter how insignificant the existence led, what an impact it had on us, especially generations of kids who got a free ticket to punch their siblings -----------under their very own parent's eyes. It didn't take a lot to keep us happy back then.

After Harley hung his brushes up, so to speak, he still couldn't get away from the work he enjoyed so much. The happy-go-lucky gent had a fondness for tinkering in his wood shop making Mail Pouch post boxes, bird houses, bird feeders and the like. Although he passed before the initial meeting, this writer is one of many who believe he's looking down proudly beaming and with a grin ear-to-ear ------------probably standing beside a Mail Pouch sign.

We had "mom and pop" stores then. That's how the Mail Pouch story got its start. Two brothers, Arron and Sammuel Bloch owned a store in downtown Wheeling W. VA. In 1890, they founded the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company. Swisher International officials announced to this writer that today, they've named this branch Mail Pouch Tobacco. They put out over 15 products now in the chewing tobacco and snuff lines.

Swishers International Inc. officials reported that barn painting, the oldest gimmick to advertise Mail Pouch, came to an end in 1965. This was when the government (no surprise here) got in to the act. They, that year, passed the "highway beautification" bill that limited advertisements to being at least 660 feet from the highway. It also helped launch those witty and sometimes humorous red and white Burma Shave signs into eternity. Another killing blow "was times were changing." Speedy interstates were replacing those roller-coaster-like narrow two-lanners that followed the contour of the land. Fifty miles an hour wasn't speeding anymore --- it was hardly moving!

When Arron began the barn-painting program in 1907, he ordered that a black spot be placed in the center of every foot on the outside yellow border. Why the black spot? Painters were paid by the square foot and a photo of their work had to be sent to the main office so they could get paid and have expense monies reimbursed.

Hagan stated that Warrick, who passed away at age 76 years, was, "by far the most famous Mail Pouch Barn painter." It is estimated that he painted or re-painted 20,000 barns. "He told me once," Hagan grinned, "that the first 1,000 were pretty rough, but then I got the hang of it."
The buildings were re-painted every three or four years. The task was given to local painters at first, as one could travel only by rail or a horse-drawn vehicle. But, as transportation improved, painting contracts were narrowed down by 1933. Now, only a few painters from both the east and west coasts were called upon. Hagan stated that Warrick came on the scene in 1946 after serving a stint in the military. He stayed around 55 years.

Although Mail Pouch was the granddaddy of barn advertising, others tried to capitalize. One named "Wow" gave up in the mid-forties. Others mentioned included, "Red Man" and "Beach Nut." But, they are a rare find today. The upkeep and sudden interest in Mail Pouch Barns are preserving their existence a little longer.

"Ha," Schnauffer chuckled, "You could say we were even international for awhile." He explained, "that one Barnstormer lived in Canada for a time." He closed, "but we are represented by 17 states now." He added that the most common Mail Pouch Barn has gold or white letters on a black, blue or red background. The rumor is that red barns are rare since they are harder to paint. Schnauffer though re-painted a red one on Glen Eden Road in New Sewickley township heading north on route 989 to Unionville.

Back to the earlier days. Farmers had the choice of being paid with money, tobacco products or subscriptions to either Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post.
However, later when barn ownership changed hands, things became quite complicated so farmers were paid cash on an annual basis. But, they were priceless to us kids who grew up with them around. Remember the fun we had? Riding in the back seat peering out an open window and counting them. Burma-Shave signs too. Or, maybe it was brown cows, white cows, calves!

In today's narcissistic society, I was overjoyed by how Mail Pouch received its unique name. In 1879, the brothers added several women to the top floor of their store where they made fresh "stogies." Smoking these caught on from people watching burly drivers of Conestoga wagons, from which they were named, roll through going west.
The ends of these "stogies" had to be clipped and discarded. Since most of their customers were miners and couldn't smoke down under anyway, one of the brothers came up with a bright idea. They decided to make use of the clippings, cover them with a sweet flavor and sell it so the men could chew it. Licorice, the flavor used most during this era, was chosen. It sold quickly and before long it became difficult for the Blochs to keep up with the demand. The entrepreneurs, at the beginning, shipped the material out to wholesalers who would package it with their own brand name on it.

After some eleven years, the Bloch brothers decided that they wanted to package it themselves. It would be more convenient and also make them more of a profit. But, they needed a name. This is the good part of the story. They got everyone involved and urged their customers to jot down catchy titles and put them in a large jar. It's also important to remember that this was before the telephones and car. The only way for people to communicate then over a long distance was by the United States mail.

The main social activity for many in those years was to congregate near the 'ol potbelly stove at the busy general store waiting for the mailman. Many would just stand around telling tall tales while others played checkers or cards. The mailman would finally come, not only with the mail, but stories from the neighboring towns and villages. As a gesture of good will, he too was asked to enter the contest. He wrote something down on a piece of paper and dropped it into the receptacle. Finally the big day arrived and the customers all gathered around the bottle. Out came the winning entry.

It was the mailman's selection, thus Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco was born.

(I thank Swisher International, Inc. for the following very informative information)
1. History of Swisher International, Inc. 4000 Water Street Wheeling, W. VA. 26003
2. How Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco was named
3. Mail Pouch barn signs
(Author is also grateful to Lonnie Schnauffer, Scott Hagan, Don Warrick, and Megan Warrick)