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As It Was: Barns and Watering Troughs Serve as 1880s Billboards

Barns and watering troughs served as billboards in the 1880s, proof that advertising was as much a part of life in those days as railroading and road building.

Advertising crews traveled stage roads in wagons and on horseback, paid by Levi Straus to paint barns and watering troughs with ads for Levi Straus overalls and Leake’s work gloves. They carried paint and paraphernalia to last them from one railroad station to the next between Dunsmuir, Calif., and Ashland, Ore. Each crew had a carpenter cook, wrangler, the “background boys” and the graphic “lettermen.”

According to Frank Scott, his father, Isaac, was a skilled letterman. One day at chowtime, he put down his paintbrush and hurried off to eat. He had only completed the first word of an advertisement on a newly painted water trough, when a freight wagon approached. The driver led his thirsty mules to the trough, and let out an exasperated sigh.

The sign read “Leake’s,” the only word Scott had finished painting before chowtime. The mule driver spat, and said, “Well, if it leaks why cantcha just fix it instead of going to all that trouble painting a sign?”

Source: Scott, Frank L. Siskiyou Pioneer and Yearbook. Vol. 5. Yreka: Siskiyou County Historical Society, 1950. 30. Print.

Gail Fiorini-Jenner is a writer and teacher. Her first novel "Across the Sweet Grass Hills", won the 2002 WILLA Literary Award. She co-authored four histories with Arcadia Publishing: Western Siskiyou County: Gold & Dreams, Images of the State of Jefferson, The State of Jefferson: Then & Now, which placed in the 2008 Next Generation Awards for Nonfiction and Postcards from the State of Jefferson.