Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dr. Pierce Barn in jeopardy

3/10/10 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Dr. Pierce Barn in jeopardy

Hold on to your hats, folks! Last month we learned that the Village Green Resort was for sale. This month it’s the Dr. Pierce Barn. Twenty years after the Cottage Grove community rallied to save the deteriorating barn from collapsing, it is once again in peril.

For 20 years, the Historical Society has had an easement to maintain the picturesque old barn. That agreement expires in May. The (new) current owner has restored the property’s home and put it all up for sale. Unfortunately for us, he feels that the barn’s listing on the National Register of Historic Sites is a hindrance and not a help. He says there are too many hoops to jump through and the taxes are a liability. It’s got to go.

Sometimes charm comes at a cost. And much of Cottage Grove’s mystique and charm lies in its past: old advertising murals, acres of big timber, covered bridges, hidden gold mines, ancient Indian settlements and a mysterious fairy princess. Keeping history alive can be costly but the rewards are great.

The 1912 Dr. Pierce Barn is the most prominent of our advertising murals. The weathered old barn welcomes residents and visitors as they drop down over the bridge to hwy 99N into town. It is a fitting vintage entrance as to our historical city.

The story has been told many times of how, in 1989, the barns then property owner planned to tear it down. A group of citizens and the Historical Society learned of the pending demolition and sprang into action. First, they negotiated a deal with the owner for an easement to the barn. He graciously agreed not to tear it down and in return, they agreed to maintain the structure.

A “Help Save The Barn” drive was begun to raise the funds necessary to stabilize the structure, re-build the south wall, paint and replace the roof. There were garage sales, benefit dinners, a 7-hour Marathon Bingo Benefit and private donations to raise the $10,500 so that work could be begin. On May 19, 1990, several hundred people gathered in the parking lot across the street to officially dedicate the barn. The dedication date coincided with National Historical Preservation Week.

So, who was this Dr. Pierce? What were his Pleasant Pellets? How did he end up advertising in Cottage Grove? And why should we save his barn? Well, in 1990, I bought a copy of the “Dr. Pierce’s First Aid Book” to help save the barn. So I have answers.

Dr. Pierce was an actual medical doctor who specialized in diseases of the nose and throat. As a young man he practiced medicine in the oil fields near Titusville, Penn. and became well known for his success in treating chronic diseases. He soon became a consultant in ‘desperate cases.’

However, when I read his book I thought, “This man is a quack!” I mean, please. Who else would send people around the countryside putting his name on barns to advertise laxatives? Yep. His Pleasant Pellets were basically recommended, “to keep your system running smoothly.” And if you had a poor or sallow complexion, they’d beautify that too! Cost? 60 pellets for 30-cents.

But let’s face it. The year was 1867. Modern medicine was primitive. Physicians didn’t have much to work with. So evidently our good Dr. Pierce decided to package his most popular remedies and sell them to the general population. A cynic might say that he was selling snake oil to the gullible. Others would say that he was selling hope.

The popular doctor was successful and moved on. Pictures of Dr. Pierce’s Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute at Buffalo, NY show a magnificent edifice staffed by skilled surgeons, physicians, chemists and graduate nurses. If anyone in the country needed good medical advice, all they had to do was purchase a bottle of Dr. Pierce’s principal medicines, write down their symptoms on the wrapper and send it to his clinic. All of this was at no charge.

At the clinic, the faculty, “after careful deliberation,” would receive the request, prepare an opinion and submit it to the patient. If the case was one for which the clinic had a prepared medicine they would direct the patient to purchase it at a nearby drug store. In special cases, they would prepare special medications; if the condition could only be treated at the clinic, arrangements would be made.

His book is replete with First Aid instructions and testimonials. Its advice is largely directed to women: “Why suffer every month?” “Advice to Young Women and Girls.” “Why dread motherhood?” And my favorite: “Dangerous Age for Women: menopause.” Men got the “Backache” and “Put your house in order” section.

Dr. Pierce died in 1914. His sons and a grandson carried on the company until 1960, using barn advertising to reach rural areas. But we still have a Dr. Pierce Barn from 1912. A salesman paid a farmer to advertise his wares; the barn got a coat of protective paint and the painter got a job. It was free enterprise at its best. A win-win situation.

So why should we keep this old relic? Why not? It gives the town character. It sets us apart from other places. And then, there’s the bragging rights. Dr. Pierce’s Barn was the first barn to be nominated for, accepted by and listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. The acceptance of Dr. Pierce’s advertising signage set a precedent for the future. Because of him, Cottage Grove is a trendsetting All-American city!

At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll say it again; Cottage Grove is a charming and quirky place to live. Let’s keep it that way and respectfully maintain our historical past as we build for the future.

The question now is this: Who will provide a new home in the city for our country barn? And even more important, who will pay the $40-50,000 to have it moved!

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. 
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