Barn Signs and Bureaucracy Collide in Mail Pouch Sign Controversy

PHOTO CREDIT: NEWVINE PERSONAL COLLECTION

PHOTO CREDIT: NEWVINE PERSONAL COLLECTION

You might recall my column from April 2014 about the refurbished Mail Pouch Tobacco sign at the barn on the east side of Highway 99 south of Merced.  If you drove by it in recent weeks, you probably noticed that one of the advertisements painted on the barn is now gone. We have the state transportation agency Caltrans to thank for this blocked out image of the former sign promoting APG Solar of Atwater.

photo credit: Newvine Personal Collection
photo credit: Newvine Personal Collection

APG Solar President Brent Jerner had his company logo painted on the barn in a transaction between his company and the owners of the barn, Victor and Lorraine Dragovich, about three years ago.

Earlier in 2014, Brent worked with the non-profit group Mail Pouch Barnstormers to secure a grant covering the partial costs to have the Mail Pouch Tobacco lettering repainted.

The net result was a bright new look for the barn, and the restoration of a County landmark.

Enter the new reconstruction project of Highway 99 with the state transportation agency Caltrans rules regarding the distance from road signs to the highway, and the trouble began.

The Dragovichs received a registered letter from Caltrans pointing out that with the new highway moving closer to the barn, the APG Solar sign was in violation of department rules governing the distance road signs can be from the highway.

The letter demanded the APG Solar sign be removed, or else the Dragovichs could face fines of $10,000 or more.

photo credit: Newvine Personal Collection
photo credit: Newvine Personal Collection

APG’s Jerner tried to fight the ruling.  “We took it up several levels through Caltrans,” Brent said.  “We took it here locally, then on to Stockton to the regional office, and on up to Sacramento.  But at the end of it all, the ruling stood.”  Brent had the APG Solar logo painted over.

The Mail Pouch letters can remain as they were part of the original advertising on the building.  As the company Mail Pouch no longer exists, the lettering on the barn is not considered advertising.

The Mail Pouch barn has a lot of history.  The original barn sign was painted by three men, known as barnstormers, working on behalf of the Mail Pouch Tobacco Company back in 1940.

Victor Dragovich says the trio took two days to paint the sign on the roof. He was ten years old when the advertising was painted.  He’s lived at the home next to the barn all his life.

The barn was built in 1937 by Victor’s dad with help from Victor’s older brother. Victor’s parents, his brother, and three sisters lived there growing up in rural Merced. Victor and his wife Lorraine have lived at the homestead ever since they were married. They raised a son and daughter there.

The restoration work was done by artist Deanna Schmidz. The project was made possible by a grant from the Mail Pouch Barnstormers group and with help from APG Solar.

While disappointed with the decision by Caltrans to force the repainting of his company’s logo and phone number, Brent is taking it in stride and not letting it impact his business.  The company is expanding to a new building on land in the former Castle Air Force Base.

photo credit: Newvine Personal Collection
photo credit: Newvine Personal Collection

A five-thousand foot metal building is being built to house the growing business.  Another seventy-five hundred square foot section will be added in the future.  The company is relocating to a site near the Big Creek Lumber Company.

Brent says that while he regrets Caltrans decision, he has no regrets being involved with entire Mail Pouch barn restoration project.  At the time of the restoration, he had the east side of the barn painted with the Mail Pouch letters.

 “We did that for the Dragovich’s,” Brent said.  “That way they could enjoy what the rest of us have enjoyed these past several months.”

We’ll continue to enjoy the new look of the Mail Pouch barn.  While it will no longer bear the image of APG Solar, the company that was instrumental in getting the restoration started, the barn will continue to impress visitors passing by on Highway 99.

And on a sunny day, when the sun hits the west side of the barn just right, you’ll notice the painted over image of the Atwater based solar company that made the project possible.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced