DIXON — The landmark signifying “You were almost home” has been fading over the years, Merle Topper said.
His famous painted silo, with the words “Drink Milk, Over 96% Fat Free, Associated Milk Producers Inc.,” is what so many remember most about that final stretch of road headed north on U.S. Route 52, coming into Dixon.
Topper, who still lives in the house where he was born 89 years ago, was treated to an early birthday gift from his friends and neighbors.
“I don’t know what they are planning to do with it,” he said with a trusting, easygoing, shrug, as a boom lift was being parked in front of the silo.
Longtime friend John Rich spent the past year planning to have the mural restored, hand-painted the way it was originally. Knowing costs would be pretty high, “Friends of Merle Topper” was formed.
A group of regular patrons at Shamrock Pub, who often have shared lunch with Topper, raised nearly $300.
Nostalgically, Rich said: “Merle lay his life on the line for his country. There wasn’t no arm twisting or anything. Anybody who knows him, knows he is always the first one to pitch in to help. No one could say nothing but good about Merle Topper. He’s a good guy, … honest as the day is long.”
The World War II veteran and lifelong farmer was in the Navy. He enlisted in the Navy Reserves in 1946, and worked at the utility company that’s now ComEd.
He also continued to farm the same land his father had. He and his wife, Betty, who worked at City National Bank, had three sons and two daughters.
Word spread quickly, as it tends to do in these parts, Rich said, and before long, everyone wanted to simply get it done for him.
“It’s been there forever and is a landmark for anyone who grew up around here,” he added.
Randy Betz of Turnroth Sign Co. and John Morley of Morley Sign Co. are business rivals, but when it came to doing something nice for someone so deserving, neither company hesitated. As a team, and at no fee, they put their talents, skills and equipment to use, side by side, for the restoration project, working for 10 hours Thursday until it was complete.
Other companies that helped at no charge included Dixon Paint Co., Sherwin Williams, Josh Price Prairie State Painting, Ace Hardware and Rental, and Holland and Sons.
The last time the silo was painted was about 30 years ago. It was done freehand, by Randy Frey.
“Randy was my mentor,” Morley said. “He put the first paintbrush in my hand. It’s an honor to redo his work. I grew up looking at it, and I’m 43, so, it’s been here a long time.”
Topper said it looks like new. He was surprised by the kindness, especially since his birthday isn’t for another month.
Semi-retired, Topper, who until about a year ago farmed livestock, including dairy and beef cattle, continues to haul livestock.
He said he already is seeing cars drive by a little slower to admire the silo’s new shine.
Money collected for the project wasn’t needed, so it will be used to throw Topper a big birthday bash at The Shamrock in July.