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 (www.MailPouchBarnstormers.org ) 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 www.MailPouchBarnstormers.org
To see the story about the Mail Pouch Tobacco sign restoration that was reported by ABC-30 Action News-
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.