MY MEMORIES OF THE WATKINS MAN are peripheral. A man at the door of our farmhouse peddling vanilla and spices to my farm wife mother.
It was an era when rural women mostly stayed home to raise their families, when families owned only one car, when the distance from farm to town was traversed but once a month.
Salesmen, like the Watkins man, the Fuller Brush Man and the Schwans man brought goods and/or food to doorsteps. Personal service. Meeting a need.
In September, my husband and I stayed overnight in Winona, a southeastern Minnesota community we’ve visited often given our eldest daughter attended college there. Never, though, had we taken the time to explore the J.R. Watkins Museum & Store and the adjacent impressive administrative headquarters. This trip we did.
The business started in 1868, not in Winona, but in neighboring Plainview where Joseph Ray Watkins made and sold Dr. Ward’s Vegetable Anodyne Liniment. He’d secured the recipe from a Cincinnati physician. Today the company still sells a 96.5 percent natural pain-relieving liniment. (Click here to read a synopsis of Watkins’ history.)
In 1885, J.R. moved his business to the growing Mississippi River community of Winona. Through the years, the company flourished, and then floundered as times changed and the door-to-door sales strategy became less effective with more women working outside the home. Consumers’ tastes were also changing. Eventually, the company filed bankruptcy and was purchased in 1978 by businessman Irwin Jacobs. Now his son, Mark, heads Watkins, a thriving business that currently offers 350 products.
Today Watkins remains an important part of Winona, not only as a business that markets gourmet, bath and body, health, and home care products, but as an integral part of local family histories. You may not learn this touring the museum or reading the company’s history online. But talk to a museum staffer and you will hear about hometown loyalty.
I learned, for example, that the vanilla in most Winona kitchens is Watkins’ vanilla. It has always been a company top seller. The staffer did not offer proof of this claim. But I don’t doubt her assessment. I purchased a two-ounce bottle of Watkins “naturally and artificially flavored double strength vanilla” labeled as “superior quality since 1868” and “awarded Gold Medal for highest quality.”
But the most interesting local tidbit she shared is that of “Winona Coffee,” coffee sweetened with a drop or two of Watkins vanilla added to the grounds. This is apparently how many Winonans prefer their coffee. And that says a lot for a company based in this city for 130 years.
ARE YOU FAMILIAR with the Watkins Company and, if so, do you have a favorite product?
FYI: The Watkins Museum is open from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Saturdays. It’s located at 150 Liberty Street, near downtown Winona. Admission is free. Also consider touring the administrative headquarters around the corner featuring Tiffany stained glass windows. Check back tomorrow for a post on that building as I continue my series of stories from Winona.