Ol' time sign sparks modern debate over law
Photo credit: D.G. Whitefield for Next Stop...Decatur
“Sign, sign,everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery,
breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t
you read the sign?”
The Five Man Electrical Band, whose anti-establishment hit “Signs” rocked the music charts in the early 1970s, was a Canadian group, so odds are its members didn’t grow up with “See Rock City” signs dotting the roadways on barns scattered across the rural countryside.
But a lot of us here in Georgia did, which is why the current brouhaha over such a barn sign, and the citation of the barn’s owner for violating county laws, strikes such an emotional chord.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, a creative marketing genius decided the best way to draw attention to the Rock City tourist attraction in north Georgia near Chattanooga was to make it famous by roadside signage. Over the next 25 years or so, some 900 barns in 19 states across the nation, primarily in the South, were used to invite folks to “See Rock City.”
The advertising campaign became famous in its own right, eventually becoming as much a part of the rural Southern way of life as red tractors and spotted hens. But times change, and “See Rock City” went from being an advertising slogan to a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time, when Sunday drives on lightly traveled rural roads bereft of billboards were common.
As the saying goes, that was then and this is now.
In the process of renovating an old farm site into a car lot, Ben Morris decided to return an old barn to the traditional red and black colors of an early generation, and to once again invite the world to “See Rock City” via bold white letters against a black roof.
Morris says he was simply repainting a sign that had been there in the past but had faded to the point of being virtually impossible to see. If that’s the case, county officials say, then the sign can be grandfathered in under the county’s sign ordinance and allowed to remain. But if not, it’s a violation of the ordinance as an unpermitted roof sign.
Morris has beaten an Americana drum and rallied support to his cause. The county finds itself trying to defend a portion of its sign law that it likely never expected to be a problem. County officials say they can’t ignore the law just because they like what a sign says, and they have to enforce it the same way for everyone.
Here’s hoping that someone can step forward with solid proof that the barn in question was, indeed, once painted as an advertisement for a most unique tourist attraction, and that this particular piece of historic Southern culture can remain as a reminder of simpler days.
Lacking that, surely those entrusted to write and enforce county ordinances can find a way to allow the preservation of a bit of history that doesn’t open the door to a future of neon lights and day-glow paints atop the roofs throughout the county.