1 of 4
Lee Benson
Every so often, Rich Horrell, a local barn painter who knows "how to paint old barns old" comes by and touches up the 100-year-old letters.
It's a rare day that someone doesn't stop to admire the view and take a photograph, says Michelle Weed, who lives with her husband, Matt, in the old Olsen farmhouse. Michelle is Evan Stevenson's granddaughter.

COLLEGE WARD, Cache County — About a hundred years ago, a man knocked on the door of a farmhouse next to the road here just a few miles south of Logan and asked if he could paint an advertisement on the side of the barn.

The barn's still standing.

So is the ad.

Through blizzards and droughts, through war and peace, through the Great Depression and Great Recession, through the Hippie Era and the Internet Age, through you name it, "Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription" has come out on the other side.

Just don't try to buy the prescription. The company went out of business sometime in the 1940s.

From all historical accounts, Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription, which he marketed toward women, was wildly popular in its day. It was first concocted in the late 1800s by Ray Vaughn Pierce, a Buffalo physician, and contained, among other ingredients, opium and alcohol.

People would take one shot and swear they were cured.

Then they'd take another shot just to make sure.

By the turn of the century, Dr. Pierce was selling nearly 2 million bottles a year through the mail.

It's one of the reasons they're called the good old days.

To spread the word, Dr. Pierce seized on the idea of using the sides of barns close to roadways to publicize his medicine. In essence, they were America's first billboards.

He'd pay farmers so much for barn rights and then an amount for rent every year. Very much like the Miller family agreeing to put "EnergySolutions" on the side of its basketball arena, only on a smaller scale.

From the 1900s onward, Dr. Pierce ads could be seen on the sides of barns across the country.

Sometime after 1904 and before 1929, College Ward farmer Lovenus Olsen was approached by a Dr. Pierce salesman concerning the side of his barn, which stood in an ideal well-traveled location next to Highway 89-91.

Locals know it was after 1904 because that's when Lovenus built the barn. And they know the ad was there before the Great Depression arrived in '29.

Lovenus agreed to the deal because he got $25 the first year and $10 rent every year thereafter, and in the bargain he also got somebody to paint his barn.

Exactly when the yearly payments stopped is not clear. The original Dr. Pierce died in 1914 and his son, also a Dr. Pierce, ran the business until at least 1940, when such pesky things as drug laws and government packaging regulations started getting in the way.

The farm was handed down from one Olsen to another until the family lost all interest in farming by 1960, at which point Marv Hansen, who lived across the street, bought the 15 acres, barn and all. Later the property was sold to the Norr family and in 1997 it changed hands again when the current owner, Evan Stevenson, bought it.

About that time the old barn with the ad on the side was showing its age. Stevenson remembers that the only thing holding it up was a corral pole that wasn't even part of the barn. The whole thing was listing three-and-half feet off-center, like it had ingested too much of what it was selling.

"A good strong breeze would have taken her down," says Evan.

Word spread that the barn was in trouble and suddenly College Ward – a place that fiercely maintains its identity despite the large looming shadow of nearby Logan – came to life, enacting its own version of an Amish barn-raising, but without the Amish.

One family brought in a forklift, another a backhoe, another a crane, another cement, another refreshments. Utah Power and Light donated telephone poles.

Ever since, the barn – at least the side facing the street – looks like it did a hundred years ago.

It's a rare day that someone doesn't stop to admire the view and take a photograph, says Michelle Weed, who lives with her husband, Matt, in the old Olsen farmhouse. Michelle is Evan Stevenson's granddaughter.

"It's a cool old house to live in," says Michelle, noting that the two rooms on the north are part of the original structure built in 1904.

"We don't need an address," she adds. "All we have to do is say we live at the Dr. Pierce farm. It's like a serious landmark up here."

"You have no idea how serious," says Evan. "If we let anything happen to it we'd have to have 24-hour protection."

But he sees no immediate concerns. There are a few holes in the roof and on the west side, but the structure's foundation is as solid as it ever was, and every few years Evan has Rich Horrell, a local man who "knows how to paint old barns old," come by and touch up the letters.

The medicine might be long gone, but the marketing campaign just might last forever.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: [email protected]