The anti-Alabama letters keep coming in.
“I read that you’re moving to Alabama, Sean,” the email began, “and I’m not trying to talk you out of it. But last month my family visited Florida for a seminar… We drove through Alabama and saw a billboard with a red devil that said ‘Go to church or the devil’s gonna burn your butt’ or something similar.
“I was so disgusted, I was like, ‘If this is how dogmatic Alabamians are, I don’t want any part of this.’ Again, not looking to start a fight, but personally, I’m sticking with Ohio. Live and let live, I always say.”
Okay. For starters, you’re talking about the billboard on I-65 near Prattville. And the sign actually says “Go to church or the devil will get you.” As far as I know, the sign has never included the word “butt.” This is because the sign was erected by fundamentalists, and fundamentalists do not use the word butt.
Take me. I was raised in a strict fundamentalist household by fervent people who denied the existence of butt. In fact, I did not use this particular four-letter word until I was 29 years old, and even then I wasn’t technically sure what the word meant.
A few other things I was not allowed to do as a churchgoing child:
—Watch “Charlie’s Angels”
—Or “Fantasy Island”
—Or any TV show containing females
—Including segments of the “Lawrence Welk Show”
So anyway, the highway sign the author of the email is talking about is not just a run-of-the-make billboard. It’s considered a historic Alabamian landmark, on par with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the Civil Rights Memorial, and the childhood home of A.J. McCarron.
The Devil Sign was originally erected in the ‘80s by a guy named W.S. “Billy” Newell. People say Newell was an eccentric character who kept deer and buffalo in his front yard, right in the middle of downtown Montgomery.
You read that correctly. In Alabama’s capital city, a metropolis with roughly 200,000 residents, home of Alabama’s esteemed legislative body, there were actual buffalo roaming the Newell yard, leaving fragrant buffalo surprises in the grass. So that tells you what kind of a fun guy Billy was.
The red devil figure on Newell’s sign, however, is sort of an inside joke among Montgomery’s elderly folks, inasmuch as the devil predates the sign itself.
Back in the early 1920s, a Montgomery man named Mose Stuart opened a chain of Tan-Kar gas stations. He used the long-tailed red devil on his gas pumps as a sort of mascot.
The devil icon became famous in Montgomery County, akin to the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Michelin Man. Except, of course, the Pillsbury Doughboy won’t drag you off into everlasting fire and pluck out your toenails with a flathead screwdriver.
So when they tore down the old filling station, Billy “Buffalo Guy” Newell got a hold of the old tin devil. He stuck the devil to his sign, came up with a catchy fundamentalist slogan, and the rest was history.
Interstate Beelzebub was a big hit. He stood in the same spot for over a quarter of a century, greeting interstate motorists, until a storm knocked him down in 2016, whereupon there was no sign for a few years.
And what do you think happened next?
I’ll tell you what happened. People freaked out. They wanted the sign back. Not just Alabamians, either. People all over the Southeast went ape because we all loved that sign.
That sign represented the all-American childhood road trip. And not just fundamentalist childhood road trips. I’m also talking about the childhoods of unchurched kids who grew up getting tattoos and watching “Three’s Company.”
Still, I feel I should point out that Alabama doesn’t have a corner market on dogmatic religious billboards.
Recently my wife and I traveled through Missouri, for example, and I saw a Baptist billboard that read: “Who in Hell said you shouldn’t get baptized?”
And there was the billboard I once saw outside Louisville, Kentucky, which read, “Where are you going, and why are you in a handbasket?”
Then there was the billboard I saw last summer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which read, “Are you going to Hell?” Directly below this billboard was another ad reading: “Ask about our hand-dipped ice cream!”
My personal favorite was a church sign I once saw in Jackson, Tennessee. It said: “Do you want to know what hell is? Come hear our preacher.”
And there was the church sign my friend and Episcopal priest erected in front of his chapel doors one Sunday. “Lent is coming, so get your ash in church.”
Even so, no discussion about religious billboards would be complete without mentioning the story sent to me by a man named Randall, from Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
Randall says that there was a billboard on his childhood school bus route that read, “You can’t hold hands with Jesus when you’re in Hell.”
“This sign used to terrify us kids,” said Randall.
One year, shortly before the Michigan-Ohio State game, some kid with a spray can altered the sign. The next morning, children on the school bus read the sign aloud and laughed until their gums bled.
The sign read: “You can’t hold hands with Jesus when you’re in Ohio.”
But hey, like you said, live and let live.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.