Artwork on Washington County barn stirs memories for couple, preservationists

Photo by Janelle Patterson Martha and Richard Biehl watch as Ruston Baker paints their Moss Run Mail Pouch Barn.

MOSS RUN — Before the age of billboards and digital ads, buildings like the three-story barn along Ohio 26 in Moss Run, Washington County, served as advertising art for decades.

Now that Mail Pouch barn, built in 1935, is showing off more vibrant colors after mural painter Ruston Baker, of Millersburg, Ohio, took to the scaffolding with bucket and brush in hand last week, spending five days painting the bank barn’s roadside wall.

“I knew Harley Warrick, the original painter,” said Baker. “So even though the work I usually do is more intricate, I have a soft spot for preserving his work.”

Advertising art on barns, popular from the beginning of the 1900s through mid-1960s, spanned to more than 10,000 barns across the country, especially in the Midwest. That’s where the West Virginia Mail Pouch Tobacco company founded by the Bloch Brothers Stogie Company founded in 1879 called home.

Now only a few remain dotted across the rural landscape of the nation, designated by states as landmarks worthy of preservation as part of the American folk heritage.

Photo by Janelle Patterson Ruston Baker adds a black paint to the top of the Moss Run Mail Pouch Barn.

With wind howling through the valley Baker restored the stark black, blue, yellow and white to the side of the Biehls’ barn over the past two weeks, as Martha and Richard Biehl looked on from the family’s old general store across the road.

“We spend time sitting in the store just watching people go by,” said Martha, 86. “I play solitaire down here and people stop to talk with us.”

“They used chestnut lumber when my father built the barn,” added Richard, 85. “And I put a new roof on it in 1980. We used to have cattle in there. It was a working barn.”

The barn, farm and store, which closed in 1993, have stood the test of time, and served as landmarks for rural travelers.

“It’s even a stop on the fall foliage tour each year,” said Lisa Almond, of Moss Run, daughter of Martha and Richard. “People stop all the time to take photos and talk with mom and dad.”

Photo by Janelle Patterson Mural painter Ruston Baker tests paint on the Moss Run Mail Pouch Barn as he works to preserve the historic landmark.

To see a new paint job on the barn, which once hailed travelers to the store for goods, locals for mail and even for years mourners for funerals, brought a sense of connection to history for the Biehls’ daughters, Almond and Penny Biehl, of Moss Run.

“I used to play basketball on the side of the barn,” said Penny. “It brings back so many memories.”

The daughters first heard of the restoration work being done on preserved barns across the Midwest through an article in Country Living magazine last year.

“There was this group called the Mail Pouch Barnstormers providing grants to pay for the preservation of these historic barns,” explained Almond. “We called them right up and they told us we were selected for this year’s grant.”

The grant supplied the paint for the project, while the Biehls supplied the cost of labor.

Photo by Janelle Patterson Martha and Richard Biehl, of Moss Run, stop to appreciate the antique John Deere tractor in their barn.

Baker said the barn was in good condition and only needed seven boards replaced before the new paint went on.

“Yes, the wood warps, but that’s part of the character of the thing,” he said. “It’s an ode to the past and the simpler time.”

For those looking to make a stop at the barn, take a drive north on Ohio 26 about 11 miles outside of Marietta. The barn sits on the right-hand side of the road, and the Biehl Store, on the left.