When Rock City opened to the public in 1932, Clark Avery Byers was called upon to negotiate with farmers for the right to paint on the roof tops. Today, the barns that remain standing are being repainted.
See Rock City
How a three-word ad campaign carved itself an enduring place in American folk culture
May 4, 1998
Web posted at: 2:55 p.m. EST (1955 GMT)
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (CNN) -- In the mid-1920s, Freida Carter started building a pine needle footpath winding through a 10-acre (4-hectare) field of massive boulders atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga. The boulders were on a large tract of property bought by her husband -- Garnet, the man who had invented the first miniature golf course a few years earlier -- for a luxury home development.
Freida built the path, marked off trails to spectacular views with twine, and collected wildflowers and shrubs to replant along her trail. When she started to show signs of an illness that would debilitate her in later years, Garnet picked up her ball of twine and turned the tract into a park called Rock City, opening to the public in 1932.
The unusual formations -- tight squeezes, enormous boulders apparently balancing atop much smaller rocks with ease, tumbling waterfalls and wide-ranging views -- were clearly appealing, but the Depression kept tourists away, and Garnet decided that some creative advertising was in order.
He called on an employee, Clark Avery Byers, to go out and paint a simple message on barn roofs across rural America. Today Byers' canvases have become part of the America's psyche. The message: See Rock City.
Byers painted some 900 "signs," he says -- Carter gave him the power to find the barns and negotiate the right to paint them.
"I started paying them $3 a year, you know," Byers says. "Back then $3 buy a sack maybe two sacks of flour or something or another like that."
Rock City began manufacturing birdhouses with the famous slogan "See Rock City" painted on the roof tops. The birdhouses were modeled after Byers' original creation of a mailbox which doubled as a birdhouse.
From barn roofs to birdhouses
Byers' barns weren't his only contribution to America's cultural legacy. In the early 1950s, he made a mailbox with the same slogan that also doubled as a birdhouse. Bluebirds loved the invention, but postal authorities did not -- advertising on government property was unlawful.
So the owners of Rock City began manufacturing birdhouses, and the rest is marketing history. Byers still has the original mailbox/birdhouse.
Many of the real barns, now aging, are crumbling, but they haven't been forgotten. Many of those that remain standing and can be located are being repainted. Thirty-seven-year-old Jerry Cannon has been roaming around eight states off and on since 1993 sprucing them up.
Cannon says he's delighted to play a small roll in this on-going folk culture episode.
"I'm trying to do something that'll be around a while," he says. "Try to continue a legacy and keep on...."
Preserving the barns through pictures
And while Cannon paints, David Jenkins of Chattanooga has been out photographing. After striking a deal with Rock City management -- the park is now run by Freida and Garnet Carter's great-nephew Bill Chapin -- Jenkins spent 18 months driving around America photographing the old barns.
The result was the magnificent tribute to antiquity that underscores his coffee table publication, "Rock City Barns, A Passing Era." The power of that simple message still amazes, the photographer says.
"I don't know that's it's maybe as well known now as it was in past years, but it really has passed into folk culture," Jenkins says. "The truth is that Rock City's advertising has overshadowed Rock City itself."
In its day, though, those barns brought people to Rock City by the droves. They came to see the manicured grounds 2,400 feet (730 meters) above sea level, to walk past some 400 species of plants and trees, past the rock-top reindeer herd -- and the famed swinging bridge, which looks daunting but has been conquered by millions.
And there's the famed "See seven states!" claim -- no one makes the climb without seeing if it's true. On a good day, when nature is at its best, you surely can -- if you know where to look.
CNN National Correspondent Larry Woods contributed to this report.
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