February 28th……...”WERE THERE DOOR TO DOOR SALESMAN THAT CAME TO SELL THINGS TO YOUR FAMILY ON YOUR FARM NEAR KIESTER, MINNESOTA?”
Dappled diamonds of daylight, from our farm’s treed windbreak, tried in vain to reflect off of the dust-encrusted panel wagon that rolled down the gravel road towards our farm driveway. Just a minute earlier, to the north of our place, I had watched that long-framed, 1954 Ford Courier Panel Sedan pull out of Charlie Heitzeg’s farm driveway. It began to churn up its own cloud of gravel dust as it meandered its way south for its next stop to our farm. I could see impressive, bold-painted lettering on the sides of the blue panel’s exterior. There were flamboyantly flourished wordings that announced that this was the “Watkins Products” man.
I could hear the “Watkins Man” give ‘er the clutch as he shifted down that manual transmission to a lower gear so he’d be able to safely bank into our north driveway. Now in “granny gear”, there was a lumbering sound in the roll of that big, blue beast. Guiding it along, he drove behind our farm house as he brought his Ford to stop right by the back porch door. Having chased after him, for the fun of it, I saw those classic round red tail lights go dark as the driver shut down his chariot and lifted his foot off the brake.
A Minnesota-born enterprise, the Honorable J. R. Watkins founded his company in Plainview, Minnesota in 1868. He first concocted a liniment made from camphor (derived from pine trees) and capsicum (from red peppers). Mr. Watkins set the example for future company associates by, in the beginning days, personally selling his own products door to door. His business began to thrive and he eventually moved the company to its current world headquarters in Winona, Minnesota. Over the years, Mr. Watkins became equally, if not even more, famous for high quality baking ingredients and spices; such as vanilla extract, pepper, etc.. As a matter of fact, in 1904, J. R. Watkins assured his customers, far and wide, that “When you deal with a Watkins agent, you patronize a reliable man”.
I’m sure our Watkins Man was “reliable”, but he climbed out of his Ford “wearing the road”, that day, on his shirt and pants. He really had no choice in his appearance because of the need to have his vehicle windows open for some type of cooling as he drove along those country roads. Air-conditioning was very rare, if even in existence, in those old ’54 Fords and besides, that would’ve cost his company extra money to provide that type of transportation. Our salesman, on that muggy summer day, could only afford 2/50 air-conditioning………two windows rolled down at 50 miles per hour.
The Midwest heat, that he endured, had soaked that poor fellow’s shirt to the point that his sweat “cologne” was rather distinctive when mixed with the massive selection of spices that he carried to sell in the back of his Ford. “Is your mother home today, sonny? Can I speak to her please”?
As he asked about our mother, the gentleman walked around behind his delivery panel and swung open that large back door. Those creaking hinges, of that older model sales wagon, were like a trumpet fanfare that revealed treasures within. Inside that Ford resided almost any type of goodie a farm wife could wish for. Whether a homemaker was cleaning or cooking, there were big “doctor bags” of samples opened up with all their little cavities filled with colorful bottles of powders, liquids and other nick-nacks and paddy-wacks that could make a farm wife’s cooking or cleaning that much better.
What really caught this little farm boy’s eye was the delicious looking types of Watkins version of a Kool-Aid beverage drink mix!! Wild Cherry was my favorite flavor as I drooled over the yummies before my little boy eyes! Shaking myself back to reality and being obedient to our guest’s earlier request, I made a beeline inside to get Mom and brought her out through our back porch’s screen door to greet our salesman. With courtesies having been exchanged in greetings, Mom and the Watkins man chit-chatted about what her current home and kitchen needs were. Since Mom was an excellent baker, she almost always bought a bottle of the Vanilla Extract. Once business was concluded, Mom often invited our sales guest into the house for a friendly cup of coffee and a cookie before sending him on his way to the next farm down the road. Pleasant were the tasty memories of the Watkins Man for this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.