|Photo courtesy Cathy Bellavita|
Monday, October 1, 2012
Good-bye, Dr. Pierce
I’ve written so many stories about our town’s beloved Dr. Pierce barn, that I scarcely know how to begin this one. Its demise was expected and heralded in news stories with headlines like “Looming barn demolition…” Last year the Historical Society ended their efforts to purchase the barn. Citizens rallied but a “Save the Barn” campaign never garnered enough support to save it.
Still, it was a shock when I drove by as the owner was standing on the sagging barn’s rafters and taking down the hand-lettered boards. Cottage Grove’s 100 year old, iconic barn siding advertising “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets” is now in storage waiting for a buyer.
Most people buy old barns to preserve them. They have history on their minds and in their hearts. Beginning in 2008, our barn was purchased and soon held hostage by a new owner. He said it was a hazard and a tax liability. He wanted it gone so he could subdivide the property—a whopping 1.3-acre lot.
As I’ve said before, saving the barn is all about the money! So if you have an extra $25,000 burning a hole in your pocket you may buy it.
The old Dr. Pierce Barn has long been the heart of town. It was more than a tourist attraction. It was an intangible part of us—a source of pride. A landmark that just made you feel good to know it was there. It gave our town a unique personality. It evoked memories of an era that had come and gone. It touched my soul and it will be missed!
Some might ask, What’s so attractive about an old barn? This Dr. Pierce guy and his son were quacks. But in an era of primitive medicine they sold HOPE to men and women for about 90 years. Their blood purifier was the equivalent of 19th century snake oil—but its many claims of success were painted on barns, hawked by salesman all over the country and purchased by those were ill.
In an agrarian society barns were good advertising. And evidently a barn sign painter could make a good living. Harley Warrick (the last of the Mail Pouch barn painters) is a good example. Mail Pouch painters were painting his dad’s barn when he came home from the army in 1947. He decided painting would be a better life than milking 27 Jersey cows twice a day. Warrick became a legend. He painted and touched up barns until his death in 2000.
Long before Warrick started painting, others were painting Dr. Pierce’s message. Many of them still stand in other states. They are located and maintained on private property thanks to owners and communities who appreciate things of the past.
In Sonoma County, Calif., a property owner has maintained one of Dr. Pierce’s barns (and paid the taxes) for years. It is located on US 101 in Asti and a familiar landmark to those who travel the 101 corridor. Its sign is common among the barns. It reads: “For your blood: Dr. Pierce’s Medical Discovery.”
There’s another fabulous old Dr. Pierce barn in Toledo, Wash., One side of the barn says, “Makes Red Blood. Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery.” Another side is really not politically correct but it touts, “For Weak Women. Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.” A few hundred miles away, there’s a similar barn.
Another great barn sits in Cache Valley, Utah, north of Salt Lake City. There, the doctor’s sign reads: “The woman’s Tonic: Dr. Pierce’s favorite prescription.” Last year, an article about the barn was published in the Standard-Examiner in Ogden. Writer Becky Cairns traveled to College Ward to check out the old barn and interview Evan Stevenson, the owner’s father and volunteer caretaker.
The barn was built by Swiss farmers and estimated to be 107 years old. It may have been painted in the Great Depression when the farmers would have received a $25 initial payment and then $10 a year afterward for the use of their barn as a billboard.
Gary Stevenson purchased the 15-acre property in 1997. The barn was in such poor condition that “A good, stiff breeze would take it down,” his dad said. In fact, the structure was 3-1/2 feet out of plumb.
Fortunately, he, his son and the community didn’t whine about liability or who was responsible for this piece of history. No, they and the residents of College Ward volunteered to help straighten and stabilize the structure. Now it’s good to stand another 100 years.
So why is this family and community taking care of this old barn? “Well,” Stevenson says, “I don’t believe in being hung.” People are pretty attached to this piece of barn art. Not only that, I love it,” Then he adds. “I think it’s great."
Of course, it’s always something. Now the paint is peeling. Stevenson can pull the flaking paint right off the letters plastered on the side of the weathered 100-year old barn. But not to worry! He says he’s looking for the right person to do that job.
“We have to get somebody who knows how to paint it old,” he says, "because you don’t paint an old barn new, you paint an old barn old.”
The extended Stevenson family and Cache Valley community are keepers of the flame of history for esoteric reasons—not for money. A different situation than we have here in Cottage Grove.
Our Cottage Grove sign reads: “For your liver: Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets.” Perhaps one day, through someone’s generosity, it too will live again and put a smile on faces who like to remember the past—even if he was a snake oil salesman!
If you are interested in reading more about the Dr. Pierce Barn and the demolition process check out this website: http://www.historicpreservationleague.org/mep_DrPierceBarn.php.
Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.