Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Assignment of a Lifetime

U.S. 165, Morehouse Parrish, Louisiana

In Indiana, a black cat wound itself around the legs of an old farmer and looked up at me, eyes gleaming in the early light.  In Louisiana, a yellow locomotive emerged from behind a barn just at the right time, under just the right kind of sky.  In Tennessee, a pony positioned himself in front of a barn, threw back his head, and gave me the horse laugh.  Serendipity, which by definition is capricious and unpredictable, became a welcome and almost expected companion as time and again I traveled all day under overcast skies which opened to bathe a barn in rays as I arrived, then closed again.  It was my dream project, the assignment of a lifetime.  And it began with three little words: "Let's do it!"

The man who spoke them was Bill Chapin, president of Rock City Gardens, a tourist attraction near Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Behind the words, a lifetime dream: to create a book about the old barns whose painted message, "See Rock City" became one of the greatest outdoor advertising campaigns of all time.  They launched me on a project that was to occupy much of my time and effort for the next three years and affect my life and business profoundly. 

It began with Bill's great-uncle, entrepreneur Garnet Carter, who laid out trails and swinging bridges through ten acres of massive rock formations on the cliffs of Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga.  Hoping to regain his depression-lost fortune, he opened Rock City Gardens to the public in 1932, but unfortunately nobody much came.  Not until 1936 did things improve, when he hired an enterprising young sign painter named Clark Byers to travel the length and breadth of the land painting "See Rock City" on the roof or side of every barn whose owner would allow it.  So diligent and successful was he that as many as 900 barns in 19 states may have carried the Rock City slogan over the years, making it famous around the globe. 
The retirement of Byers in 1968, coupled with changing highway sign laws and the completion of the Interstate system brought about a drastic reduction in the barn painting program, as Rock City began to rely on other forms of advertising -- which ultimately brought me into the picture.  As a commercial photographer with a studio in Chattanooga, I began working for the attraction in the early '80s, photographing for brochures and other advertising.  In 1988, Bill told me of his long-held dream of a book about Rock City's barns and asked me to find out what it would cost.

Although he decided not to proceed at that time, my interest was kindled.  I obtained a list of the 110 barns they were still maintaining, and whenever my travels brought me near one I made a photograph of it if possible.  In 1994, after learning that the barns being maintained by Rock City had dwindled to 85, I went back to Chapin with my photos and told him that if he wanted to do a book, this was the time.

He didn't say much.  Just looked at the pictures for about 15 minutes, asked a few questions, then said the magic words: "Let's do it!"
A few days later I received a box containing hundreds of old file cards, the only record of most barn locations.  On each card was the name of the last known property owner, the highway route number, and the distance from the nearest town.  Many had a small photo attached, apparently taken about 1960; but some had only rough sketches of the barns.  Inside each card was a record of rents paid (usually $3 to $5 per year) and repaint dates.  Rock City had had no contact with most of the barns since the late '60s.  The only way to find out if they were still standing was to go and see. 
So I went.

(Canon EOS-A2, 28-105 f3.5-4.5 Canon EF lens, Fujichrome 100 film.)

No comments:

Post a Comment