Monday, April 20, 2009

Get Right With God

(Above) This is Harrison Mayes’ bicycle, currently on view at the Appalachian Museum in Norris, TN (near Knoxville).
(Above) A large sign reminding passers-by to start praying.
(Above) Mayes had hoped that by the year 2020 we would already be living on the moon and (apparently) all the planets in our Solar System.

(Above) A roadside cross made of concrete.
(Above) I acquired this rare bottle from Harrison Mayes’ family some years ago. It is an old pint bottle for liquor, repurposed and sealed for dropping into the ocean. Inside is a letterpress message alerting the finder that “Jesus is Coming Soon” and “Prepare to Meet God.” The message is written in several languages.
(Above) Reverse side of bottle. Click on any image for larger view)
(Click for larger view)

Harrison Mayes was born on a farm in Claiborne County near Goins, Kentucky in 1898. His family moved to Fork Ridge, a community of wood frame houses on stilts that was part of a series of coal mining camp towns near Middlesboro. You can only imagine but be quite sure that life there was a hardscrabble existence. By the time of his 15th birthday, Harrison was working in the mines alongside his father, like so many other boys his age.

When he was about 18 years old, he was nearly crushed to death by a runaway coal car. Working in the deep mine as a coupler, young Harrison was slammed against the side of the mine wall by a fully-loaded car when it broke loose from the line. He was in such a dire situation, with broken bones and a crushed chest, he promised God that he would dedicate the rest of his life spreading His word if only his life would be spared. Harrison did survive, and as he had promised, he went about his mission of working for the Lord.

After a few attempts at preaching, Mayes realized he could reach more people by placing signs along the roadside. He began building signs, first of wood, sometimes of galvanized sheet metal, but finally of concrete. For just over 40 years, Mayes poured concrete crosses in handmade forms on his property in Kentucky and set about his task of placing crosses along the roads of rural America. He would usually just stop his truck, dig the hole and plant his cross without asking permission. After all, he was doing God’s work.

I grew up in North Carolina and remember seeing his concrete signs along roadsides throughout the South. Very few signs are still around today, falling victim to highway expansion, natural erosion and property development. You can see a great display of actual Mayes’ signs at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN, just off the interstate near Knoxville. I have been there several times and it is worth seeing if you are in the area. Harrison Mayes, “God’s Ad Man,” died in 1986 at the age of 88.

As a sidebar to this post, don’t forget Lucinda Williams great song “Get Right With God,” which no doubt referred to Harrison Mayes’ famous phrase. I am sure he would have liked the tune.


Dull Tool Dim Bulb said...

Great! The Museum (which is incredible and doesn't get enough attention) also exhibits some work by Cedar Creek Charlie, a lesser-known outsider environment fellow who painted dots on everything he could reach...and an incredible collection of handmade instruments like banjos, guitars and fiddles. I have never understood why the museum isn't better known...maybe cause it was largely the work of one man?

Robert said...

Wonderful post, John. "This bike is dedicated to outer space" is somehow brilliant. That's my kind of museum.

Kim and David said...

LOVE this! Kim

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