Rock City barn gets paint job as Chattanooga area attraction marks 90 years

Staff Photo by Mike Pare / Rock City employees are shown Thursday repainting the roof of a barn holding a See Rock City sign. The barn is outside Fort Payne, Ala., on Highway 176.

FORT PAYNE, Ala. -- The building is called a survivor.

On Thursday, the roof of the old wooden hay barn received a new coat of paint from Rock City employees who restored two large signs that for 63 years have pointed visitors to the longtime Lookout Mountain attraction.

See Rock City Chief Executive Doug Chapin, whose family helped turn a garden into one of America's best-known sites that is marking 90 years in business, said that repainting the Rock City signs on the galvanized metal roof helps extend the life of the barn.

"This is part of the legacy," he said in an interview about the signature structures, which once numbered more than 900 but now just 44.

Chapin said the federal Highway Beautification Act, which was passed in 1965 and called for control of outdoor advertising, classified the barns as a sign and helped contribute to the decline in number. Also, he said, owners through the years have changed.

Chapin said the idea for the barns dates back to Garnet Chapin, who with his wife, Frieda, founded Rock City in 1932.

"It was an innovative idea," the Rock City CEO said. "It's a sustainable medium."

Most of the barns were painted by Clark Byers, of Chattanooga, who spent 30 years attaching slogans on roofs in 19 states. According to Rock City, Byers started going around to farmers amid the Great Depression, offering a free paint job in exchange for the advertising. Byers retired in 1969 and died in 2004.

Meagan Jolley, Rock City's senior manager of public relations and social media, said the newly painted barn at 13487 Alabama Highway 176 is one of only a few remaining that have messages on both sides of a gable roof.

One side of the barn roof reads "See Rock City World's 8th Wonder." The other side says "See Beautiful Rock City Today."

Barns remain in eight states, Jolley said in an interview. A location near Chicago is the most northern site, but most of the other barns sit in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, she said.

Darren Henderson, who lives nearby and owns the Alabama barn, recalled that a tornado went through the rural area about 15 minutes outside Fort Payne years ago. While another barn across the two-lane road was blown away, the Rock City structure was left standing, he said.

"It's a survivor. No doubt about it," he said in an interview.

Chapin, who became See Rock City CEO last year after succeeding his father, Bill, said plans are to repaint the rooftops of other barns as well.

"We want to try to hold on to the barns as long as we can," Doug Chapin said.

Michael Henderson, who grew up in a house across the street from the barn, said the structure itself has become something of an attraction.

"You wouldn't believe all the people today who take pictures," he said in an interview.

As Rock City moves through its 90th year, which officially started last May, the attraction is having "a good year," Chapin said. He said he expects Rock City to see nearly 600,000 visitors in 2023, which is similar to the prior year.

Chapin, the fifth-generation owner and fourth-generation leader of the mountaintop attraction, said he's excited about Rock City's and Chattanooga's prospects moving ahead.

"There's still a lot of opportunity," he said. "We're a pretty resilient market. We're our own authentic experience. Rock City doesn't exist anywhere else."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.