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Barnstorming

Updated: Feb 16

(or, some guy driving all over the place to find and photograph historic old barns)

(Above: a "See Rock City" barn just inside the Hamilton County line near Georgetown, TN)


barnstorm: verb. bärn-ˌstȯrm: to travel through the country making brief stops to

entertain (as with shows or flying stunts) or to campaign for political office.


Okay, so Yours Truly wasn't exactly traveling through the country, making brief stops to entertain (either by putting on a show or being a flying daredevil) or to campaign for political office (are you kidding?).


But I did spend the summer of 2023 traveling through five southern states, making brief stops to try and catch some of the last remaining vestiges of old Americana before they disappear forever - the classic old "See Rock City" barns. Once numbering as many as 900 barns over 19 states, there are less than 70 of those old classics remaining today. And that lesser number seems to be dwindling rapidly...


So you may ask, "What is Rock City, and how did these old barns come to be?"


Let's hop into the ol' Wayback Machine and find out, shall we?


Our first stop takes us all the way back to 1823 - two centuries ago! - when according to the Rock City website (www.seerockcity.com) two missionaries, Daniel S. Butrick and William Chamberlain, arrived in the Chattanooga area to minister to Native Americans who were already inhabiting the land. On August 28, 1823, Reverend Butrick made an entry in his diary describing "a citadel of rocks" atop Lookout Mountain, noting the immense size of the boulders and stating that they were arranged in such a way "as to afford streets and lanes."


Over time, through the Civil War and beyond, more and more people were referring to that area atop Lookout Mountain as "The Rock City," with some even speculating that as many as seven states could be seen from the summit.


Fast forward to 1932.


Garnet and Frieda Carter had just opened up a rock garden on that same site, decorated with numerous fairytale characters, gnomes, and wildflowers in an area they initially called "Fairyland." The name was eventually changed to Rock City, and it opened to the public on May 21, 1932.


But wait a minute here! How was Garnet going to promote this fledgling business, with the Great Depression in full swing, and with the modes of advertising rather limited in the days long before TV and the internet?


Well, it turned out that Garnet hit upon an ingenious idea. He hired a young sign painter named Clark Byers to travel the highways and byways of America - almost all being two-lane rural roads in those days - to advertise Rock City to the masses.


Beginning in 1935, Byers would seek out barn owners, offering to give their barns a fresh coat of paint (and a few Rock City trinkets, including free admission) in exchange for painting the iconic "See Rock City" advertisement on either the roof or a side of the barn - or in some rare cases, both. Byers only used a four inch brush, and surprisingly, did not use a stencil to paint those iconic white letters on a black (or on very rare occasions, red) background. Everything was done freehand, and Byers' lettering was remarkable in its consistency from barn to barn.

(Above: a "See Rock City" barn on Old Highway 431 in Wedowee, AL, photographed in 2013)


By the mid-1960's Byers had painted over 900 barns in nineteen states, some as far north as Wisconsin, and as far west as Texas.


Then Lady Bird Johnson (from Texas, and the First Lady to President Lyndon B. Johnson at the time) spearheaded a campaign to "clean up" the highways of America from excessive advertising, and the "Highway Beautification Act of 1965" became law.


And in "cleaning up" those highways, many of the "See Rock City" advertisements Clark Byers had painted were removed from barns, with only a fraction of the old adverts remaining. Byers continued maintaining many of the remaining barns with adverts until 1968, when he accidentally made contact with a high voltage wire while painting one of those barns (with a tin roof) and nearly electrocuted himself. The resulting injuries forced his retirement from painting barns, and the continuing advancement of Interstate highways left many of those old rural roads (where one could actually see the barns) behind. Over the ensuing years, many of the remaining barns have fallen into disrepair, were torn down, or just plain collapsed.


Here's one that can be seen from an Interstate highway, located along Interstate 40 near Kingston, TN:

(Above: one of the few "See Rock City" barns that can be seen from an Interstate highway, off I-40 near Kingston, TN. There's another barn nearby that is barely visible from the I-40 eastbound on-ramp, but is mostly obscured by overgrowth)


So how did this whole "barnstorming" project of mine come about?


I had photographed numerous "See Rock City" barns over the years, going back as far as 2010. I'd even considered compiling those old images into a blog many years ago. But it was an article I saw earlier this year from a local newspaper near Crossville, TN that truly kick-started the project in earnest. And considering summer is a sort of "silly season" for me anyway - no winter snows, spring blooms or fall foliage to speak of, just whatever I could find - this summer seemed like a perfect time to chase down as many of those remaining classic barns as I could. Within reason.


With an ever tight budget (and a high mileage vehicle) I limited my search this summer to five states - Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama. Which meant my search skipped over states like Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Ohio, among others.


I wanted to keep my search within a 200 mile radius, only including the barns that intrigued me the most. By no means was this an exhaustive search.


So for the sake of brevity (and to keep your eyes from glazing over) I'll be presenting roughly 25 of those remaining classics, in various states of repair (or disrepair), and I'll categorize them as such.


So let's get started, shall we?


The Beauties


Crossville, TN

And this is the barn that reignited the whole project - a lovingly repainted, restored barn south of Crossville, Tennessee on Highway 68. This was one of five barns repainted in 2023 as part of Rock City's 90th anniversary barn restoration project.


I'd originally came to photograph this barn on July 24, but I returned on August 29, with better conditions. Both trips were equally enjoyable though, and I had an added bonus too - there's a Bucee's in Crossville, which meant I could get my Bucee's brisket sandwich fix on both occasions. What is Bucee's, you ask? Oh, just the world's largest convenience store and gas station, that's all. Better bring a fat wallet, AND an empty stomach! The brisket sandwiches are worth the visit alone.


By the way, there's another "See Rock City" barn less than a mile south of here, but it's hidden from the road due to overgrowth. It's also impossible to get to without trudging through a field of poison ivy. And since I'm highly allergic to poison ivy (among other things I'm allergic to, like soccer, vegetables, politicians, etc.) I wisely skipped over that barn...


Crossville, TN

There is a third barn near Crossville, this one being built in the 1930's and yet not painted with a "See Rock City" advert until many years later. It's painted in Clark Byers' style, but according to Brent Moore of Flickr, it was painted by the "modern" crew of Rock City sign painters. Once a country store, it's now home to a nursery, as evidenced by all the hanging plants.


Rutledge, TN

The Rock City website has (a well hidden) "barns map" where one could look up and find the remaining "See Rock City" barns in existence (https://www.seerockcity.com/barns-map/).


The trouble is, the map isn't the most accurate or up-to-date. I went to see what I believed was the site of one in Rogersville, TN (where my Mom briefly lived in 2008-09) and what I saw when I arrived was a silo and a concrete slab with a big ol' pile of collapsed wood. It also claims there are still barns near Sevierville and Chestnut Hill, TN as well. Well, there were barns there. Not anymore. But the signage from those two barns still exist, and were moved elsewhere several years ago. I'll get to those later.


I found that Flickr - believe it or not - was the best source for accurately locating barns, as well as gathering their history.


But the See Rock City barns map did get the above barn east of Rutledge, Tennessee correct. This beauty is located between old Highway 11W and current Highway 11W several miles west of Bean Station, and it still gets plenty of use...


Rydal, GA

I've gotta say - I love this barn.


Ever since I first chanced upon it way back in 2010 - located on US Highway 411 in Rydal, Georgia, 55 miles northwest of Atlanta - this rustic, photogenic old barn instantly became a fave of mine.


This was one of the first barns Clark Byers painted way back in 1935, and current owners Tim and Robin Ward have fully embraced its history, as well as its popularity. According to an article from www.mymix1041.com, Tim Ward is quoted as saying, "Everyone in the Rydal area knows the barn as a landmark from their childhood or when they first moved to the area – it is how they also learned about Rock City." This barn was another one recently given a fresh coat of paint as part of Rock City's 90th Anniversary barn repainting project.

Maryville, TN

There are two barns within a couple of miles of each other just south of Maryville, Tennessee on US Highway 129 - this is the one in far better shape, appearing freshly painted and sturdy - the other one you'll see a bit later in the blog.


Seymour, TN


Two images, taken ten years apart, the first in July 2013, and the second in September 2023; and yet, so little change.


Interestingly though, there is a bit of "ghost signage" here. If you look carefully at the first image (and you can see it slightly in the second image), you'll see the old fashioned word "TO-DAY" covering over what used to say "Chattanooga TN." Even though the entirety of Rock City is technically located in the town of Lookout Mountain - in Georgia.


Decatur, TN

Another one I wanted to track down, as it's that rare barn that still shows the old primary Tennessee Highway shield - this one being Tennessee Highway 58. The other one you can see at the beginning of this blog, and I'll tackle that one in more detail shortly. Today's primary highway shield is rectangular, with the outline of the state of Tennessee incorporated into the design. The old triangular design is now used for secondary highways. And yes - if you stay on Highway 58, even to this day - it will still lead you directly to Rock City.


Georgetown, TN

You saw this one already, as the cover image for this blog (it's also featured in my book "Seasons,") but it's another beauty with the old triangular Highway 58 shield, located just inside the Hamilton County line in Tennessee.


I posted this image on my social media accounts not too long ago, and one of my followers told me this barn had been torn down (this image was taken in 2013). My heart sank. But when I went back earlier this summer, it was thankfully still standing - as black, red, and beautiful as ever. It was only the poor lighting that kept me from posting the new image, so the old image of this classic remains the best.


Fort Payne, AL

This is my favorite aesthetically of all the barns I captured.


It was also the longest drive from home, and the only one that fell outside my 200 mile radius, located on Alabama Highway 176 near Little River Canyon, south of Fort Payne. But it was also well worth the extra miles...


I first photographed this way back in 2010 or 2011 (I can't remember exactly, I just know I no longer have the files). It was overgrown on one side (and if I remember correctly, fenced off), making it difficult to photograph.


But this two-sided beauty was recently fully restored, with the overgrowth removed - the third of five barns repainted by Rock City - and this one not only got a repaint on both sides of the roof, but brand new siding as well. Not to mention a unique 90th Anniversary logo:

Before And After


Englewood, TN


A classic barn on US 411, as photographed in 2018:

And after a makeover, taken in September 2023:

Eh, I'm not too sure about this particular overhaul. Being the sort who likes preserving history, I preferred the original design with the old school "US 64" highway shield (and a rare "Rock City Gardens" sign). There's another barn repainted identically to this one that can be seen from Interstate 24 just past Chattanooga. Nonetheless, this new design (with the Tennessee Titans football team logo) sure is colorful though...


A "See Rock City" Shed?

Barnesville, GA

I'm not sure this one is still standing, but I caught this old shed with the classic Clark Byers style lettering on the very last drive I took with Mom before she passed away - November 2, 2013 - she would pass exactly a month later on December 2. If memory serves, this one was located on Georgia Highway 18 northeast of Barnesville, GA, sixty miles south of Atlanta. A strange anomaly, but to me it's still part of the "See Rock City" barn canon, and I'm glad Mom got to see it.


Hiding In Plain Sight


Parrottsville, TN

A bit of faded glory here, and one that admittedly I passed by quite a few times before I even noticed it. This one's alongside the Old Parrottsville Highway, otherwise known as Old US 411. A four lane divided highway was built about 15 years ago to bypass it, and it was given a new US route number - 321. This is now the primary route between Newport and Greeneville, TN. The barn is visible from the southbound lanes of modern day 321, but the signage is so faded it's easy to overlook it. The signage says, "SEE 7 STATES FROM ROCK CITY near Chattanooga Tenn." This one is a prime candidate to get a fresh repainting, as it's still in great shape for its age.


Dandridge, TN

Another one that's easily overlooked, this barn is located on US Highway 25/70 west of Dandridge, near the interchange with Interstate 40, which is just beyond the trees at upper right.


To an everyday passerby, I'd imagine this structure just looks like an old barn with a light blue add-on. But to someone a bit more eagle-eyed (or some geeky type like me looking for a specific kind of barn), they would notice three rather ghostly looking words just above the add-on: "WHEN YOU SEE," painted in Clark Byers' style and part of one of the slogans he often painted on barns: "WHEN YOU SEE ROCK CITY, YOU SEE THE BEST." The add-on is covering up the remaining signage. Another old See Rock City barn, hiding in plain sight.


Just Plain Hidden


Bean Station, TN

No wonder I couldn't find this weathered, rusted old relic when I first looked for it.


Never mind that the (notoriously unreliable) See Rock City barns map had this located a half mile to the east of where it was actually located.


Never mind that when I asked locals about this barn, they gave me a quizzical look and (basically) replied, "See rock what??? Ain't no rocks here to see, unless you go down to the rock quarry over in Mooresburg!"


All this time, the old, seemingly nondescript barn you see above was well hidden behind a thicket of trees. This was the only somewhat clear shot I could get, and I had to take a back road to get that shot. Through a fence. (You know, since hopping over a fence and trespassing tends to be frowned upon nowadays.) I finally found the barn using aerial maps.


But there's history involved here - and I'm always eyes and ears for historical stuff, so let's delve in...


The town of Bean Station in Tennessee - at least, the original Bean Station - was discovered by none other than Daniel Boone and William Bean way back in 1775. This area eventually became established as a stopover for early American travelers, as they took routes that roughly followed the same pathways that would become US Highways 11W and 25E in the 1920's.


But those original routings of 11W and 25E would eventually become inundated - with water - as the establishment of Cherokee Dam (and Cherokee Lake) by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1940's literally buried the town under water, forcing many of its 200 families to move to higher ground. The photo you see below - a fair use image taken in 1942 before the dam was built - is of the original crossroads of 11W and 25E in old Bean Station:

Today, that spot where the gentleman was standing is now under water.


So the town of Bean Station - and the new intersection of Highways 11W and 25E - were relocated to higher ground, a few miles due east.


That's where the barn above comes into play. An aerial map from 1960 shows the barn in excellent condition along Highway 11W, only a few hundred yards west of the new intersection with 25E. And considering 11W was a major artery before the establishment of Interstate 81 in the 1970's, many an eastbound traveler saw that barn.


After Interstate 81 was completed though, not so much. So the barn fell into disrepair, got hidden by the aforementioned armada of trees; and yet, miraculously, it still stands in 2023. The only proof that it was once a "See Rock City" barn can be seen in the faded letters at far right:

When it was in its heyday, it once read, "SEE 7 STATES from ROCK CITY 8th World Wonder."


Today, it's a wonder that it's still standing...


Tiiiiiin Roof!! Rusted! (With apologies to the B-52's)


Topton, NC

Another that could easily fit in the "Hiding In Plain Sight" category (and even with the "tin roof, rusted," not exactly a "love shack"), this ancient structure is not so much a barn as a weathered old storefront in the tiny community of Topton, NC, located between Bryson City and Andrews. The rusted roof is another that says (if you look closely, and you really have to look closely) "WHEN YOU SEE ROCK CITY, YOU SEE THE BEST."


Abbeville, SC

Perhaps the most fun barn for me to track down, this rusted old beauty resides on busy SC Highway 28 south of Abbeville, roughly 65 miles northwest of Augusta, GA. It's one of only two barns remaining in South Carolina, the other being an almost completely faded one in the tiny town of Denmark, well south of Columbia and well outside of my 200 mile radius. That old linseed oil paint Clark Byers swore by is seemingly holding the whole thing together...

Valley Head, AL

Yet another candidate for a repaint, this one is on US Highway 11, roughly 40 miles southwest of Rock City. Just like the Topton and Dandridge barns, this one has the classic slogan "WHEN YOU SEE ROCK CITY, YOU SEE THE BEST." If you can read it through the rust, that is. At far left, a cow makes a cameo appearance...


Worse For Wear


Maryville, TN

This weathered old relic is the other "See Rock City" barn on US Highway 129 south of Maryville, Tennessee. One that could use a little (or maybe a lot of) TLC; and oddly, one facing north towards Knoxville on 129 as opposed to the one seen earlier in this blog, which faces south towards Chattanooga - and Rock City itself.

Sweetwater, TN


Yet another example of a barn I first photographed in 2013...

And then again exactly ten years later...

Only this time, the deterioration is all too evident. This is the only barn remaining to my knowledge with the unique slogan "BRING YOUR CAMERA AND SEE ROCK CITY."


When I first rediscovered this barn in late August - appearing as gloomy as the weather that day, dilapidated, and surrounded by overgrowth - I thought initially it was one I hadn't seen before. But when I compared this new image to the one I'd taken ten years prior, the markings on the roof were an exact match. Sadly.


Here's hoping the landowner (or Rock City themselves) sets out to make some restorations to this classic old beauty, an absolute landmark in Sweetwater.


Murphy, NC


Here we go again.


A photo taken in 2011:

And then again August 30, 2023:

At first glance, you might say, "It doesn't look that bad."


And this one, located on US Highway 64 west of Murphy, NC, is one of the five barns repainted by Rock City for their 90th anniversary (the words "Chattanooga Tenn." were added in the repaint).


But the freshly repainted roof is buckling in, there are gaping holes in the roof on the other side, and it doesn't appear too far away from collapsing. I'd love to see this barn get the Fort Payne barn treatment, with all new siding and a commemorative sign...


Robbinsville, NC

Someone call a barn repair specialist, stat!


One of only four "See Rock City" barns remaining in North Carolina, this one is the closest to total collapse, if it hasn't collapsed already since my visit there in August. It's located on US Highway 129 near the west end of town. You can't see it from the above side angle, but if you look at it head on...

Hoo boy.


And it was a double sided barn too, with signs on both the roof and front. I first photographed this over a decade ago, in far better shape, but I can't find the old file. Probably lurking on an old hard drive. This one is likely far beyond restoring; and frankly, it deserved a far better fate...


Preserving History


Gatlinburg, TN

This old barn (photo taken many years ago by Jerry Jaynes on Flickr) is still shown on the barns map on the Rock City website, though it was either damaged in a storm or collapsed or torn down - in my research I've seen varying accounts. In any case, it no longer stands along US Highway 411 east of Sevierville, near the community of Chestnut Hill, TN.


But I did see an interesting comment under one of the photos of this barn, from Cody Williams via Flickr: "I believe the signage is part of a distillery in East Tennessee."


And in fact it is, but not the distillery I originally thought. My first thought was the Ole Smoky Holler in Gatlinburg, as signage from an old barn lines the wall next to the stage where the bluegrass bands play; but when I checked, the lettering was not a match.


Then there's Sugarlands Shine, only a block up the road. Walk in, look up and to the right, and there it is, the old signage from the now defunct barn east of Sevierville. And the lettering is a perfect match:

But what about the signage at Ole Smoky? Which barn did that one come from?


Well, I found it came from another barn east of Sevierville, once located on the Old Newport Highway. This is the other barn I referenced earlier. The Rock City barns map still shows it as standing, when in fact, the signage from that now torn down barn resides stage left at Ole Smoky Holler. So not only do I get to indulge my fondness for bluegrass music, I can also enjoy seeing an old piece of history while doing so:

The Last Word


This "barnstorming" project took me through five states over four months - down familiar roads, and ones I'd never traveled. It brought me back to my "Solitary Traveler" roots, which I'd missed. As much as I love photographing the landscapes, I love chasing after and photographing history just a little more. I had a blast.


So now that you've seen the fruits of my summer-long search for old Americana, I see a few hands raised, with a question at the tip of your tongue:


"You've photographed all these old "See Rock City" barns, but have you actually seen Rock City?"


Why yes. Yes I have:


And while I'm a tad dubious about being able to see seven states from Rock City, there is one thing you can see from this spot. In fact, the "KY-VA" arrow is pointing directly at it. Look closely:

Could it be?

Yes. The only "See Rock City" barn you can actually see from Rock City.


And that's a wrap!

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