Mail Pouch barns: Landmark art or advertisement?


SALEM, Ohio – A mistake by the state of Ohio that originally came as a threat to owners of barns emblazoned with Mail Pouch Tobacco ads may end up doing some good.

Pay up. Earlier this spring, letters were erroneously mailed to two barn owners requesting payment of hundreds of dollars or a fresh coat of paint over the signs, according to Brian Cunningham, communications director for the department of transportation.

The barns’ paint jobs count as outdoor advertisement, which the state regulates.

But those barn owners weren’t about to pay the fee for their barns.

So they and other barn enthusiasts let the Ohio Department of Transportation have a piece of their minds.

And now, the department is gearing up to work with legislators to do away with the permit fees on the barns.

Permit required. Permits will still be required, Cunningham said. Only fees will be waived.

“That helps us monitor the content of what’s painted on barns and billboards,” he said.

All billboards and outdoor advertisements are regulated by state and federal code, he said.

Ohio’s code says the initial permit fee of $225 covers the advertisement’s first two years, and owners must pay $125 every two years thereafter.

The code generates $1.3 million each year, Cunningham said. Revenues pay for crews who scour the state to track location and advertising content of billboards and barns, he said.

About 11,000 permits are issued every two years, he said.

Oops. Cunningham said fees for 100 permitted Mail Pouch signs on 50 or 60 Ohio barns – some carry the slogan on more than one side – are typically paid by Swisher International, owner of the Mail Pouch Tobacco brand.

The department of transportation sends permit notification to the company each year.

Somehow, one or two barn owners got the notification this year and demanded answers.

“From our end, things should not have happened that way,” Cunningham said of the state’s snafu.

Swisher’s sweet. Over the years, Swisher has maintained permits on roughly 100 barns in Ohio, according to Greg Vike, employee manager at the Swisher plant in Wheeling, W.Va.

Vike said the company has paid for permits on the barns only because they “feel the barns are of historic importance to the region.”

Vike said the company has not paid to touch up paint on any of the barns in about 10 years and does not consider them a part of current advertising.

Outcry. Brian Cunningham said the department of transportation got feedback with the notion they were trying to “stamp out historic icons.”

“It’s not our intent to erase these structures from Ohio’s landscape. We’ll work to preserve them as a piece of Ohio’s history,” he said.

Federal law. The federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965 regulates outdoor advertising signs within 660 feet of any federal highway or interstate.

In rural areas, Cunningham said that buffer expands to within 3,000 feet of a roadway.

Don’t be fooled by the term ‘federal highway.’ That means any Ohio roadway deemed a ‘controlled route’ by the department of transportation and mapped in a 2-inch thick book in Columbus.

“The rule of thumb is U.S. routes, state routes and interstates are probably listed. County routes and local routes, some of them are too,” Cunningham said.

Landmarks. In passing the 1965 act, Congress said the advertising should be controlled “in order to protect the public investment in such highways, to promote the safety and recreational value of public travel, and to preserve natural beauty.”

The act’s strict regulation also nearly wiped out the spread of Mail Pouch ads across the country.

The act was amended in 1974 to allow landmark signs like barns painted with the Mail Pouch advertisement to stay. Congress said the barns had historic or artistic significance.

However, permits and other restrictions stopped barn painters from putting their brush to the barn. Fewer barns would bear the advertisement.

The state has enforced the act since 1973, Cunningham said.

“At that time, there were upward of 400 permitted signs in existence” in the state, he said.

“Now we’re at 100. Either the barn owners aren’t maintaining them, they’re painting over them or they’re falling down,” he said.

Doing something. Cunningham said the state will look to develop guidelines that will mix the beautification act and the historic significance of the barns.

The department is doing legwork for their newest project, looking at other states for precedents. The state will then develop and finalize new guidelines, according to Cunningham.

The permit regulations do not apply to the state’s newly painted bicentennial barns because they do not advertise a product, Cunningham said.

Started in W.Va. Mail Pouch Tobacco got its start in 1879 in Wheeling, W.Va.

Brothers Aaron and Samuel Bloch packaged scraps of tobacco from cigar makers in a paper pouch with their trademark phrase, “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco, Treat Yourself to the Best.”

Farmers welcomed the Blochs’ barn billboards in exchange for magazine subscriptions, tobacco supplies or a free, fresh coat of paint on the barn.

Mail Pouch advertisements covered barns in 13 states.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at

Get the details

Find out if your barn’s sign requires a permit:

*      Ohio Department of Transportation

      Advertising Device Control



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