Old Redwood Highway: Barn art is a visual time capsule
By MARY JO WINTER / Cloverdale TOWNS correspondent
For more than a century, southbound travelers on the Old Redwood Highway near Cloverdale have wondered about the barn with the huge painted sign advertising Dr. Pierce’s Medical Discovery.
It was one of many signs painted throughout the country by a well-known doctor/snake oil salesman marketing cures for all of humanity’s ailments.
This one, located on Chianti Road, faces north towards the J. Rickards Winery. Giuseppe Mazzoni built the barn on his property in the Sonoma County’s Chianti area, named for the Tuscan region made famous by Chianti wine.
Mazzoni, grandfather of the late Healdsburg attorney James Mazzoni, came to America in 1898 and the following year purchased the property where the barn now stands. The family planted the land to prunes, grapes and pears. From 1910 to 1978, except for the Prohibition years, they also produced wine.
Mazzoni’s cousin, Josephine Davis, said that sometime around 1910 their grandfather agreed to have the large advertisement painted on his barn. In return, he was paid a small amount each year. Davis isn’t sure how much he was paid or how long the payments continued.
The paint is proving to be almost indestructible, however. The billboard has been touched up a few times over the years, Davis recalls, but the current owners say they haven’t done any painting since they purchased it in 1988.
Cloverdale resident Tom Sink remembers the sign was once covered over with white paint, but the colors eventually bled right back through.
“And then there was that huge white banner hung over it to advertise the grand opening of McDonald’s in Healdsburg back in the mid-‘90s,” he laughs.
So who was Dr. Pierce and what was in his “Golden Medical Discovery?”
Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840-1914) was born in New York and graduated from the Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati at 22. Civil War draft papers list his profession as physician.
After practicing medicine in Pennsylvania for a few years, Pierce moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1867 where he manufactured and sold a number of proprietary medicines. He established the Invalids’ Hotel and Surgical Institute, whose guests were said to have included the Sundance Kid. He also published a book entitled “The People’s Medical Advisor” that sold more than 2 million copies.
A member of the State senate from 1877 to 1879, Pierce was elected as a Republican to the 46th U.S. Congress, serving from March 4, 1879, to Sept. 18, 1880, when he resigned due to poor health.
With credentials like those, it’s easy to see why people trusted his medical opinions and purchased his medicines. What they didn’t realize is that Dr. Pierce was more of a snake oil salesman than a medical doctor.
Pamphlets for his Golden Medical Discovery touted it as being able to “cure everything from gas pain to a finicky appetite.” The licorice-flavored tonic, which reportedly contained quinine, opium and alcohol, was advertised as giving men “an appetite like a cowboy’s and the digestion of an ostrich.”
His brisk mail order business sold other medicines as well, including “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription Tablets” and “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets.” Many of his cures were aimed at addressing “female illnesses.”
Surprisingly, his tonics and medicines were still being sold as late as the 1970s.
Today, Dr. Pierce’s medicine bottles, boxes and other containers are collector’s items and can be found in antique stores and on a variety of online auction sites.
The Golden Gait Mercantile Shop in Ferndale even has an original Dr. Pierce counter display that indicates a bottle of his Golden Medical Discovery once sold for $1.35.
Last year, residents of Cottage Grove, Ore., got up in arms when the owner of a dilapidated barn with a Dr. Pierce sign on it decided to take it down. He was tired of paying insurance and taxes on property he wasn’t allowed to use, he explained, and also was being required to put up a fence to keep out trespassers.
The owner tried to sell the whole property, including his house, but despite the best efforts of the Cottage Grove Historical Society to take it off his hands, they never quite saw eye to eye. Eventually, the sign was dismantled, each board numbered, and he is now offering to sell it for $25k or best offer. So far, he has had no takers.
Barn ads, like the one visible from the Old Redwood Highway, are visual time capsules of days gone by.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 resulted in the demise of many of these eye-catching messages. Others have been left to the mercy of the elements, fading a little more with each passing season.
Reach Cloverdale Correspondent Mary Jo Winter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read about other key stops along those early day Sonoma County roads in the special May 12 issue of Towns: