Target Renovation Will Make Merced a Five-StarbucksTown

Photo by steve Newvine

Photo by steve Newvine

Merced has been called a lot of things by a lot of people. Some names have been positive, some names have been negative. In my latest book, I affectionately and truthfully call Merced my adopted hometown.

But by this spring, we may call our city a five-Starbucks town

That’s because the Target store near Merced Mall will add the coffee retailer as part of a renovation project. For those of you familiar with the layout of the Merced store, Starbucks will be located where the photo department currently is housed. The photo department will be scaled down to a self-service kiosk.

The express checkouts near that location will be moved to clear additional space for the Starbucks. You will not miss it when you enter the store from the south side, the side facing Sears. The news was given to me as I checked out recently, and I confirmed it with the manager on duty. Target will house Starbucks in a matter of weeks. This new Starbucks means that by spring, lovers of that particular brand of coffee will have a total of five locations from which to choose.

The other locations are:

  • 425 West Main Street
  • 580 West Olive Avenue
  • 500 Carol Avenue
  • 779 East Yosemite Avenue
Starbucks coffee

Starbucks coffee

Adding a specialty retailer such as Starbucks inside an existing retailer is nothing new in business. The built-in traffic flow makes a lot of sense for both companies to come to terms on making that section of the retail space more profitable. Customers will likely enjoy the added convenience of a Starbucks inside Target. There’s something to be said about how the number and location of a Starbucks serves as an index for community growth and prosperity. Many believe the worst of the recession is now behind us, so it may make sense for some retailers to consider expanding their businesses.

In many communities, Starbucks is seen as sort of a barometer of business success. If business is doing well, they hire more people; with more people working, the likelihood of spending money on luxury items such as four-dollar specialty coffee increases.

And there may be a few companies who have been on the fence in terms of whether they should consider taking a next step in growing the business. Reasonable questions such as: is the worst of this recession really over, and will the economy stay on track long term, are likely to be raised. The fifth Starbucks coming to Merced may not be enough to get some business owners off the fence in terms of expanding and hiring.

But it may be just the right thing to bring about some optimism for the second half of this decade. Merced County still lingers among the highest in the state unemployment figures. The community could use a boost, and we’re not necessarily talking about a caffeine boost.

Let’s hope the soon-to-open Starbucks at Target will be a successful venture. Let’s hope this new venture will lead the way with expansion among local existing companies as well the starting up of new enterprises to serve customers here in Merced County and beyond.

If something like that happens, I’d be happy to buy people making the decision to grow their business in Merced a hot cup of coffee…either at the Starbucks in the Target Store, or at one of several other coffee shops that dot the community landscape.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.

The Mail Pouch Tobacco Sign Makes Merced Building the Barn of the Year

mail pouch

Mail Pouch Tobacco

Every town should have an icon that immediately tells people why that place is special. San Francisco has the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. Turlock has the big tractor in front of United Equipment Company.

In Merced, we now have the recently refurbished Mail Pouch Tobacco sign painted on the barn belonging to Victor and Lorraine Dragovich. You can see the barn on highway 99 south of Merced. Going south, the barn is on the left side of the highway. Going north on 99, it’s on the right side just before you enter the city limits.

The original, and up to recently faded, Mail Pouch sign was painted by three men working on behalf of the Mail Pouch Tobacco Company back in 1940. Victor says the trio took two days to paint the sign on the roof and a smaller version of it along the side of the building. He doesn’t recall how much the company paid his dad to use the barn to promote the tobacco company.

“I was ten years old when they did the job,” Victor told me recently. “I remember it well. I have lived here all my 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 their son and daughter there.

“There were lots of barns with advertising painted on them back in those days,” Victor said.

But as billboards came into popularity, a lot of the barn signs were painted over. Victor even painted over his Mail Pouch sign once. “Painted it once, and then the paint faded, and the letters started to show again,” he said. “So I just left it.”

He left it without repainting until about three years ago when APG Solar made a deal to paint their company logo and telephone number on a side of his barn. APG Solar installed solar panels to power lights that shine on the APG sign at night. “Brent Jerner from the solar company was the one who got the Mail Pouch Barnstormers interested in restoring the sign,” Victor said. “He made all the arrangements to have the work done.”

Mail Pouch Barnstormers is a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of the tobacco company signs all over the United States. The group’s website ( ) explains how the group name was chosen.

The term barnstormer refers to anyone who crosses the country to sell something. The term has its roots in the early days of aviation when pilots would fly across the country selling airplane rides and parachute jumps. The word is often used to describe efforts to travel around the country for political campaigns, sport exhibitions, and theatrical performances.

Starting in the 1930’s the men who went out across the country selling farmers on the idea of using their buildings for advertising were called barnstormers. They would cross the country from their home base in Syracuse, New York. According to the website, some farmers were paid very little for the use of their barns for advertising space.

But, the website’s history section explains that many were willing to have the job done, and some were grateful to get a little money out of the transaction. From the Barnstormers website, the visitor can read news articles, more history about roadside advertising in the 1940s and 1950s, and even shop the on line store.

“Barn of the Year.”

The Barnstormers group offers memberships for $20 a year. Victor gladly plopped down his money to be part the association. “They sent me a map of the United States that shows where all the remaining Mail Pouch signs are in the United States,” he said. “There are about two-hundred left, but only about a half-dozen in California.”

Victor says the Mail Pouch Barnstormers are naming his recently painted barn the “Barn of the Year.” A story on the honor will likely be posted to the organization’s website in the coming months.

I was impressed by the restoration work done by artist Deanna Schmidz. The restoration was made possible by a grant from the Barnstormers group. While the best view of the barn is from highway 99, the safer way to view it is from the frontage road that you can access at the Mission Avenue exit. The barn is located at the corner of that frontage road and 5525 East Worden Avenue.

So take a good look on the east side of highway 99 south of Merced the next time you’re making your way to Madera, Fresno, and beyond. Tell those heading to Merced to keep an eye out for the facelift of an iconic community landmark.

To learn more about other Mail Pouch signs across the United States, go to

To see the story about the Mail Pouch Tobacco sign restoration that was reported by ABC-30 Action News-

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.

Merced’s Musical Memories

Music exhibit display, Courthouse Museum, photo by Steve Newvine

I recommend that before the summer comes to an end, spend about an hour at the Merced County Courthouse Museum and see the exhibit on our community’s musical heritage.

The exhibit, called:  “On the Banks of the Old Merced: A Music History” opened June 27th at an open house that included live musical performances. 

The woman’s singing group Harmony Valley Chorus sang California Here I Come and a song written about our area On the Banks of the Old Merced.  By the way, the song about Merced is pretty good.  To paraphrase a contestant on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand’s Rate-A-Record segment, “I liked the beat, but found it hard to dance to.  I’d still give it a 90.”

Early rock and roll local legend Roddy Jackson apologized to the opening night audience that doctor’s orders were to not sing or play.  He then talked for about a half hour sharing his memories of early rock and roll and his contribution to local history. 

Roddy introduced three musicians who made up the Merced Blue Notes, a blues band that captured a lot of attention in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The music returned with Crystal Syphon, a psychedelic rock band that recorded one album back in their heyday.  

The performances were well received by the crowd at the Courthouse Park on that opening night of the exhibit.  I hope some of the folks made it inside to see the exhibit.  “On the Banks of the Old Merced: A Music History” is a fascinating look at the City of Merced through music, photographs, and artifacts from the past.

We saw the trumpet that belonged to Warren Lewis, sheet music from Along the Banks of the Old Merced, records (both 45-singles and 33-long playing albums) among dozens of pieces that make up the exhibit. 

The visitor can read the stories behind the people who were making local history in the early days of rock and roll.  There are dozens of photographs depicting some of the musicians.  A lot of familiar landmarks are shown as they were seen decades ago.

Fortunately for us on the opening night of the exhibit, many musicians and their families were on hand to recall their recollections from that era.  One band member told he always thought the name of his band was spelled one way, and learned for the first time after viewing a vintage concert poster, that the band, or possibly the concert promoter, preferred the spelling in a different way.  

Crystal Syphon’s musicians may look familiar.  Many of the band’s members were part of The Beatles Project that covered many of the Fab Four’s hits for several years up until about a couple of years ago when the group began to focus on returning to their roots. 

Interestingly, you won’t find too much about The Beatles Project among the items on display at the museum.  That is because their history is far too recent.  This exhibit is divided into four categories: Early Musical Development, The Swing Era, Rock & Roll, and Music Melting Pot of the 1980s.

“On the Banks of the Old Merced: A Music History” will be on display through early October.  The Museum, at 21st and N Streets in Merced, is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

This exhibit is about Merced’s past.  I encourage you to take a look before it closes.  You’ll learn something about early rock and roll as well as other categories of music.  You’ll get a better understanding of Merced area musicians and their contributions to the evolution of the art form.  

With any luck, you may be entertained by stories about the people who loved their craft and who were willing to share it with all of us.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced

Backstage Pass ~ Merced Theatre


Merced Theatre

Two entertaining venues on Main Street in Merced caught my attention on a spring-time Sunday afternoon.  

The first was Playhouse Merced’s production of Urinetown, The Musical.  My wife and I generally take in one or two shows during the Playhouse season.  I’m glad this was one of them.  The show grabbed a lot of attention, as well as a few Tony awards, when it debuted on Broadway a few years ago.  Merced’s receptive audiences enjoyed the show. 

I found myself becoming more and more amazed at how the Playhouse productions continue to get more sophisticated.  Each production seems to raise the bar on what the local theater group can do in staging, set design, and performance.  

The Merced Theatre Foundation

Following the show, we headed down Main Street to the Merced Theatre.  The Merced Theatre Foundation was holding an open house to celebrate the first anniversary of the restored venue.  For the first time, we were able to walk all over the place.

Our backstage pass was a community wide invitation to stop in during the three-hour Sunday afternoon window. 

We were allowed  to view many areas of the theater that the public ordinarily does not get a chance to see.  With Foundation members sprinkled all over the place to answer questions and give us directions, we took the self-guided tour.

We entered through the main entrance underneath the marquee.  The smell of popcorn set just the right mood for touring a movie theater.  

Spanish style balcony

Our first task upon entering was to head up the stairs to the balcony. The Spanish style wall décor reminds you of the days when movie theaters were not cookie cutter stark boxes near shopping centers.  

The balcony was where I took a picture of my wife sitting in one of the chairs along the sides of the structure.  The view up there is impressive.  While you’re not looking straight-on at the stage, the vantage point puts you well above the action.

Next, the two of us headed to the stage where we could see the audience from the perspective of a performer.  The house lights that illuminated the audience seating may not have been the same as a spotlight shining in the eyes of a performer, but it was still a treat to be on stage. 

The wings of the stage are reminiscent of the wings of any high school auditorium stage.  There was even a spiral stairway that could take a stagehand all the way to the ceiling if the production called for that task.  The spiral stairway was not open to the public.

Dressing Rooms

A Theatre volunteer told us how to go downstairs to the green room and the dressing rooms where the performers get ready for a performance.  The green room (the name goes back to theater legend, but this room was actually painted beige) is where a performer who isn’t needed at a particular time during the performance waits until he or she is needed on stage. 

There are two dressing rooms; each with a glittery star on door.  Both dressing rooms had bathrooms and showers.  You can imagine the performers nervously awaiting their call to come upstairs to the wings of the stage. 

There’s a video camera shooting the stage, and the video feed is wired to the green room area.

Our back stage tour of the Merced Theatre, coupled with an entertaining musical at Playhouse Merced, made for a fun Sunday afternoon in our city.  If you haven’t been to either yet, resolve to do that before the year is out. 

If you haven’t been to either in a while, make plans to visit one or both in the near future.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced

Castle Air Museum


It's hard to believe that Castle Air Museum in Atwater is celebrating thirty years in the community.  I've been in the Central Valley for seven years and it seems the time has, pardon the pun, been flying by.

I got to know Museum Executive Director Joe Pruzo and some members of the team at Castle a few years ago.  We were part of a group trying to organize a car show at the museum with the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce. 

I left the Chamber in 2007 but continued to keep in contact with the organization.

Last summer, I reached out to Castle for a book I was writing on unique things along highway 99.  Castle Air Museum, while not on highway 99, was close enough to the roadway and significant to my telling readers about things they shouldn't miss when traveling up and down the valley.

Joe told me how museums such as this one have been a primary source for keeping the history of America's military aviation alive.

"Back in the years following World War, II, the military was begging cities to take a wartime aircraft and put it on display," Joe told me.  "Some did, and many now wished they had."

Aircraft not claimed by communities in those early post war years were headed for the scrap metal heap.  Many planes made it on that journey of no return.  But thanks to the dedication of volunteers and the cooperation of military installations such as Castle Air Force Base, many planes were saved.

For the first fifteen years of its’ existence, Castle Air Museum could count on a watchful benefactor helping the museum preserve these historic relics.  That benefactor was the Castle Air Force Base.  "The Air Base was extremely helpful in taking care of the Museum's immediate needs," Joe told me in the interview I did for my book.

When the Air Base closed as part of the Base Realignment and Closing Act (BRAC) in the 1990's, it was time to see whether appreciation for the aircraft was indeed part of the fabric of the community.

It was.  Some years were a struggle, but the Museum continued to pay some bills, acquire more aircraft, and perhaps more importantly, create greater awareness among volunteers, supporters, and the community at large.

We may take such events as Open Cockpit days, Halloween Fright Night, Christmas Plane Lane, and the recent thirtieth anniversary open house (held March 20) for granted.

These events raise money to keep the program going.   Each is important to build on the brand that is Castle Air Museum.


How many times are you asked what is there to do in Merced County?  And how many times does Castle Air Museum become part of your answer to that question?

And now, the sixty-four dollar question: have you taken the time recently to visit the museum?

The next time you get a chance, go to the museum indoor history area and look up the display for Operation Power Flite (yes, the Air Force spelled flite that way when they named this historic mission).

You'll read about an incredible milestone reached in military aviation more than fifty years ago.  And it all started right here in Merced County at the Castle Air Force Base.

You'll be proud of the folks who have worked so hard to preserve military aviation history so that it can be shared with the rest of the world.

You'll learn about an event so historic, it made the cover of Life magazine.  And you'll be proud to live in Merced County, California.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.