As I traverse the back roads of our beloved South, I’m frequently reminded how much has disappeared over the last 40 years — and how much is likely to disappear in the next 40, including me.
Fortunately, there are people like my dad, award-winning photojournalist David B. Jenkins, who had the foresight to capture on film and thus immortalize those vanishing rural landscapes.
In the early 1990s, Dad was a successful commercial photographer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of his clients was Rock City. For years, his photos graced billboards from Orlando to Indianapolis: “Rock City! See Seven States!”
One day he was talking to Bill Chapin, Rock City’s owner at the time, about the iconic “See Rock City” barns, which had long served as the attraction’s main form of advertising. They were lamenting the fact that so many of the barns had been torn down, fallen into disrepair, or been bypassed by the new freeway system.
Between them, the two men hatched the idea of photographing all the remaining barns. Dad left that day with a shoebox full of Polaroid snapshots, most taken by Clark Byers, the man who almost single-handedly painted them in the 1950s and ’60s. Attached to each photo was a card with hand-written directions to that barn.
For the next four years, in between other assignments, Dad traveled the Southeast and Midwest (barns can be found as far away as Illinois), photographing the structures wherever he could locate them.
That often involved some sleuthing, as the directions were frequently vague and outdated: “12 miles south of Lafayette on Highway 41.” Forty years later, Lafayette had grown and Highway 41 had moved. Now the barn, if it still existed, was on “Old 41” — and might well be hidden behind a stand of trees that hadn’t been there 40 years ago.
The result of that four-year labor of love is the book, “Rock City Barns: A Passing Era.” It includes color photos of over 80 barns, with black-and-white thumbnails of 184 others. It also tells the story of Clark Byers — how he came to paint the barns and how he approached that daunting task.
More recently, Dad — who actually lives outside Chattanooga, in the Northeast Georgia mountains — has published “Backroads & Byways of Georgia.” That book, too, contains hundreds of original photographs, along with detailed instructions for 25 different road trips through various parts of the state, with lists of attractions and suggestions for food and lodging.
One reviewer described “Backroads & Byways” as Dad’s “love letter to the state of Georgia.” I would concur.
So if, like me, you grew up in the South, and you’re missing the old things that were such a major part of your childhood — the old roads, old towns, old homesteads — just know that they haven’t been entirely forgotten. You can visit them again in one of my dad’s books.