Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Winona, Part I: Watkins, beyond vanilla January 6, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Vanilla has long been a staple bestseller at Watkins.

Vanilla has long been a staple bestseller at Watkins.

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.

Spices have always been a popular product with Watkins customers. These vintage spice containers are showcased in the museum.

Spices have always been a popular product with Watkins customers. These vintage spice containers are showcased in the museum.

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.

The realy

Early on in the 1900s, the Watkins man delivered products via a horse-pulled wagon.

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.

 

Watkins, 451 exterior sign

 

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.

This portrait of founder J.R. Watkins hangs in the museum.

This portrait of founder J.R. Watkins hangs in the museum.

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.)

The historic Watkins complex (museum on left, administrative building on right) is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The historic Watkins complex (museum, first floor on left, administrative building on right) is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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.

Watkins still sells beauty/healthcare items. These samples are in the store.

Watkins still sells beauty/healthcare items. These samples are in the store.

Spices have always been an integral part of Watkins.

Spices have always been an integral part of Watkins.

Watkins recently partnered with Kemps.

Watkins recently partnered with Kemps.

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.

Various sizes of Watkins vanillas are sold in the museum store. A recipe for Vanilla Coffee Creamer is printed on the package holding the vanilla I purchased.

Various sizes of Watkins vanillas are sold in the museum store. A recipe for Vanilla Coffee Creamer is printed on the package holding the vanilla I purchased.

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.”

There's a model of Winona, including the Watkins complex, in the museum.

There’s a model of Winona, including the Watkins complex, in the museum.

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?

BONUS PHOTOS:

Entering the museum. Yes, it's up several steps and through a side door.

Entering the museum up several steps and through a side door.

Spices have always been an integral part of Watkins.

Watkins spices are well-known and a major part of the company’s business.

Love the art on this vintage can of Watkins baking powder.

Love the art on this vintage can of Watkins baking powder.

more art

The annual Watkins almanac was printed in The Watkins Print Shop, open for 88 years. The shop is now the site of the Watkins museum, where the almanacs are displayed.

This toy truck, displayed in the museum, carries bags of spices.

This toy truck, displayed in the museum, carries bags of spices.

Watkins produced items for troops during WW II to fulfill government contracts.

Watkins produced items for troops during WW II to fulfill government contracts.

An overview of a section of the museum.

An overview of a section of the museum.

Pine cleaner, compared to the smell of the Minnesota northwoods.

Pine cleaner, compared to the smell of the Minnesota northwoods.

Art in a vintage Watkins calendar.

Art in a vintage Watkins calendar.

Watkins even sold mouse killer (aka warfarin) at one time.

Watkins even sold mouse killer (aka warfarin) at one time.

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.

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30 Responses to “In Winona, Part I: Watkins, beyond vanilla”

  1. Littlesundog Says:

    What a great museum! My favorite photo (of course) is the pine cleaner with the deer. The antique display cases are very cool too!!

  2. Dan Traun Says:

    I’ve driven past that complex several times. Lots of local history. Interesting buildings. I am not familiar with most of their products, but have used their spices.

  3. Almost Iowa Says:

    Your inclusion of the Schwans man was spot on. Schwans is the only reputably door-to-door sales business that I know of.

  4. Great Captures – I find places like this just fascinating – thanks so much for sharing – cannot wait for the next part! Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  5. Sweet Posy Dreams Says:

    The vintage ads and art are so fun. I’ve been seeing some Watkins products again lately (can’t remember where — maybe a grocery store near my folks) but hadn’t seen them for a long time until recently.

  6. Sue Ready Says:

    Interesting posting as last summer my friends and i went to Winona’s Shakespeare Festival (an event not to miss) and were unable to get into museum (it was closed) so now I have had my virtual tour. Great photos with interesting pieces of information, I forwarded your posting to several people.

  7. Gunny Says:

    That Pine cleaner or whatever it was brought back a flash of familiar item of my youth not seen in decades. My parents had some of that siting around the house years (and year) ago. Cool museum!

  8. Hmm, I’m going to try adding that drop or two of vanilla to my coffee grounds. Love the little truck with the spice bags in the back. Interesting company. I see their display at the State Fair every year.

  9. I love Watkins products. Mom used them and so do I. I currently have some pure mint extract boiling in some water. Our house is so dry my sinuses hurt. It’s almost like a vaporizer with Vicks Vapor Rub in it but cheaper

  10. Jackie Says:

    As many times as we’ve been to Winona and I never knew about the Watkins company being there or the museum. I do remember mom having some of the products, and I certainly notice them on the store shelves. I enjoyed reading about the history of Watkins, the photo’s were a bonus especially liked the one of the vintage spice containers.

  11. Hilda Looyenga Says:

    Thank you for posting all this information about JR Watkins Company. I am from Canada and also enjoy their products. The next time that I go to Minnesota I WILL be going to that museum. I know of a lady who distributes their products on a mass scale, that is how I was introduced to them.

    • I’m happy to take you on this tour. Welcome from Canada. You will find lots of other interesting sites to see in the Mississippi River town of Winona.

      • Hilda Looyenga Says:

        I’ll definitely take you up on that because I will be going back to Minnesota as my girlfriend lives in Luverne, Minnesota all the way on the other side of the state. I love this state.

      • Luverne is nearer where I grew up, on the prairie. Minnesota has such a diverse topography and I’m glad you enjoy this wonderful state.


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