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Roadside reminders

Former coal miner spread the Word to passing motorists
By Glen Liford, Editor 4/22/2022


Henry Harrison Mayes placed simple concrete crosses bearing heartfelt messages as part of his ministry to spread the Word throughout the country. This one is on Highway 25E at Tazewell.
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Get Right with God. It’s a command, or perhaps an impassioned plea, that Henry Harrison Mayes from Middleboro, Kentucky, felt compelled to share. He placed more than 1,200 concrete crosses and hearts across the countryside carrying those words and other similar messages.

Each monument would feature easy-to-understand, simple statements: “Jesus Saves,” “Prepare to Meet God,” “Jesus is Coming Soon,” among others. 

There’s no telling how many times I have passed by the one positioned on Highway 25 at Tazewell. There’s another across from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate and another in Smyrna that I would often see when I was living in Middle Tennessee. I’ve surely encountered others at locations I can’t easily recall. All were placed by Mayes in the fulfillment of a promise to God. 

As a young man, Mayes was severely injured in a coal-mining accident and was expected to die. It is said he prayed for God to save him, and in return, Mayes pledged he would spread the Word. He tried preaching and singing, but never felt his true calling until he began making his signs. 

He spent some 60 years fulfilling his promise, eventually placing his homemade proclamations in 46 states. He worked full-time in the coal mines and earned additional income as a freelance sign painter, devoting much of his earnings to his sign ministry. Born in 1898, Mayes carried out his mission until his death in 1986.

His unconventional messaging took many forms. He once painted a message on the side of a pig that was turned loose to wander a coal-mining camp. His initial signs were made of wood, but he soon transitioned to a heavier medium, fashioning molds, pouring the concrete, and crafting the fixtures in his backyard at his home in Middlesboro. 

The crosses were a massive eight feet tall and weighed as much as 1,400 pounds. He began placing the homemade markers on nearby highways. He rarely sought permission, simply picking random spots in roadway right-of-ways at locations that he felt were appropriate. 

He gained local recognition as the Sign Man or the Cross Maker, and his efforts attracted attention from national media like Life, Newsweek, and the Foxfire publications dedicated to preserving Appalachian history. Over the years, the degrading effects of time, progress, and vandals have destroyed many of these signs, but a scattered few remain. The Museum of Appalachia in Norris has an extensive display of unplaced examples that museum founder John Rice Irwin collected from Mayes’ home after his death. 

You may be lucky enough to see an occasional one on your travels, as Mayes’ work lives on in many places, and his timeless messages remain relevant.

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