Harrison Mayes, 1898 – 1986, Middlesboro, Kentucky and Museum of Appalachia, Clinton, TN

Sometimes, you get going down these roads, and there is no guarantee what you’re looking for is still standing. This past Friday morning, I was on US 80, heading west through Alabama’s Black Belt, searching for the concrete cross in the foreground of James Karales’s iconic photo of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1964. His striking portrayal shows an endless line of demonstrators undeterred by the ominous landscape. Just beyond our view are the national guardsmen, reporters, and cameramen, but all we see are the marchers surrounded by the bleak presence of dark clouds and the barren farmland. The way that Karales framed the image put directly in front of a symbol of the courage requisite for the marchers to persevere, one of the thousands of weathered roadside crosses erected by Kentucky evangelist Henry Harrison Mayes. (For the record, despite having the GPS coordinates, the cross was no longer standing. I passed by and passed again. This happens. The elements can take their toll nearly six decades after being installed. Priorities shifted, and I just became thankful Mayes’s work brought me back to this historic place).

Born on February 8, 1898, in Fork Ridge, Tennessee, Harrison Mayes emerged from humble beginnings to become one of America’s most unconventional evangelists. Raised in the coal-rich region of Middlesboro, Kentucky, Mayes’s early years were marked by toil in the mines, a fate shared by many in his community. Yet, despite the darkness of the mines, Mayes found a glimmer of light—a calling that would shape the course of his life.

At the tender age of 14, Mayes, like so many others in his region, entered the coal mines, following in the footsteps of his forebears. He started as a “coupling boy,” joining the heavily loaded cars for the mule drivers to bring from chamber to chamber and out of the mine. However, his aspirations stretched beyond the confines of the coal pits. Despite lacking nearly any formal education, Mayes harbored dreams of becoming a missionary, driven by a fervent desire to share the gospel with the world. Yet, the demands of supporting his family and the harsh realities of coal mining left little room for pursuing his lofty ambitions. He often slept near the mine entrance, always ready to take an extra shift if a fellow miner failed to make it to work. He termed this as “doubling over.” One shift worked for his family, the other as a devotion to the Lord.

A fateful day in the 1920s altered the trajectory of Mayes’s life forever. Pinned against the wall of the mine by a trolley, he suffered injuries so grave that his family were told he would not survive the night. They didn’t bother to bring him to the hospital, just home to spend his last hours with loved ones. But Mayes defied the odds, emerging from the brink of death with a newfound sense of purpose. In desperation and divine intervention, he solemnly vowed to dedicate his life to spreading the word of God. This promise would set him on an extraordinary journey of faith.

Mayes’s recovery was miraculous, and he saw it as a sign from above—an affirmation of his pact with God. Determined to fulfill his promise, he embarked on a mission to evangelize in a manner uniquely his own. The answer came to him while reading a church magazine revealing that millions of individuals neither attend church nor read the Bible. Rejecting conventional preaching methods, Mayes turned to the humble sign as his canvas to proclaim the gospel to all who passed by.

The first iteration of this was his most unconventional. He captured his aging black sow and painted two succinct words in white on each side of the sow: “Sin Not.” The sizable pig roamed freely in the small coal camp, making every village resident well aware of the divine warning conveyed by the humble hog. Armed with a bucket of red paint and a steadfast resolve, Mayes began painting biblical verses and admonitions on signs, which he strategically placed near mine entrances, mountain cliffs, and footpaths. His message was simple yet profound: “Prepare to Meet God” and “Jesus is Coming Soon.” These signs, though humble in appearance, carried a weighty significance, serving as beacons of hope and reminders of spiritual truths amid a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

Mayes’s religious zeal knew no bounds, and he soon expanded his efforts beyond the confines of his hometown. With an unwavering commitment to his cause, he embarked on a journey that would take him across the length and breadth of America. From the hills of Appalachia, out in the mountain states, over to the bustling highways of the Midwest, Mayes left an indelible mark on the American landscape. He eventually put road signs in 44 states, planting thousands of wooden and metal crosses bearing his timeless message.

Yet, Mayes’s transition to concrete markers would cement his legacy for generations to come. Recognizing the impermanence of wooden signs in the face of highway expansions and natural decay, Mayes devised a bold solution—he began casting large concrete crosses and heart-shaped markers, each bearing his solemn admonitions. These markers, weighing over 1,800 pounds each, standing at 10 feet high, and costing Mayes around $15 in materials, became the enduring symbols of his faith.Despite facing conflicts with authorities and property owners, Mayes remained undeterred in his mission. He would strategically place signs in what he somewhat playfully dubbed”  ‘no-man’s-land,” precisely on the boundary line between the state right-of-way and the property owner’s land, ensuring that neither party would have the authority to remove them. He had a collection of letters from California to North Carolina and many states in between, notifying him of the limitations regarding the placement of signs on Interstate. He even resorted to unconventional tactics, such as leaving cards threatening damnation for those who dared to remove his markers. His steadfast belief that “ask for permission doesn’t get you very far” propelled him to erect hundreds of markers that still stand today, nearly four decades after his death. 

In total, his signs reached 46 states and 45 foreign countries. Mayes’s vision extended beyond earthly realms, with aspirations of placing markers on all nine known planets (this was before reclassified as a “dwarf planet”). He covered all bases and labeled one for Planet X if “any new planet of the could be discovered.” He went so far as to name each of his five sons after continents and persuaded them to name his grandchildren and great-grandchildren after planets. “The way we envision it, each of the kids is responsible for putting up signs on the planets they are named after,” he explained. 

In his later years, Mayes switched his methods to reach a global audience. Collaborating with his wife, Lillie, he placed messages in whiskey bottles, casting them into rivers and oceans with the hope of reaching distant shores. Corked bottles were cast into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Great Lakes, as well as into the various significant rivers across the Philippines, along the Nile coast in Africa, and in the waters of the West Indies. They put 56,000 bottles with God’s message out in the world. He heard one turned up in Australia and sent the finder a reward. In hopes of getting the word behind the Iron Curtain, he sent bottles to Vienna, arranging for them to be tossed into the Danube River, which would send them floating toward Russia. 

The legacy of Harrison Mayes lives on through the remnants of his evangelistic fervor scattered across the American landscape. His story is a testament to the power of steadfast faith and an unyielding dedication to a cause greater than oneself. Through thick and thin, he remained resolute in his mission to spread the word of God to all corners of the earth, inviting us all to heed the call of faith and prepare to meet their maker.