WELCOME TO THE VIRTUAL HOME OF BRONSON L. PARKER. A native of Tennessee, "Bo" is a former journalist and writer of historical non-fiction. His creative writing career began after retirement from his day job as an appointed public servant in his adopted town of Hampton, VA. "It isn't a gipe site," he says. "If I enjoy something I read, or learn something about the writing game that I think is worthwhile, I'll have a few comments to make. His goal is to make it a fun site, both to write and, hopfully, to read.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Watkins Man Was An Important Part of Life For Rural Folks During the 1940s

Organic. All natural ingredients. No chemical additives. These are terms that have recently entered our culture as the new, enlightened method to produce the products we consume. Right? Not if you are old enough to remember the Watkins Man.
His monthly arrival was a big moment every month for the folks who “lived off the gird” in the hills and hollows of East Tennessee in the 1940s. The man’s name is lost in the fog of old age, but the unique sound, the “Oooga! Oooga! Oooga!” of his Model A Ford’s horn, echoing up from the valley, is still a vivid memory.

It was a clarion call to Mom and me. She grabbed her Watkins jar with the money she had collected over the last month before we dashed out to stand beside the road, waiting to see the Model A come round the sharp curve at the at the bottom of the hill and then listen as it puttered up the steep hill through the woods to our home.

What was the Watkins Man? He was one of a legion of salesmen who traveled the back roads of rural America in vintage autos, selling products door to door for the J. R. Watkins Company, located in the Mississippi River Bluff town of Winona, Minnesota.

In 1868, Joseph Ray Watkins started the company in Plainview, MN. He had one product. He purchased the right to produce and sell “Dr. Ward’s Anodyne Liniment.” The product was mixed in the family kitchen, bottled in a woodshed, loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon and sold door to door throughout southeastern Minnesota.

After the company moved to the town of Winona, the product line expanded, but products stayed true to a standard that is still adhered to today. All products are made with natural ingredients with no chemical additives. The Watkins line of products is one of the very few that is certified by the Natural Products Association.

By the 1940s, the Watkins line of products had expanded to include soaps, cleaners, personal care products, and my mother’s favorites, the baking materials. The vanilla cinnamon, cloves, and other spices came in metal cans with a tight-fitting top. They made great toys when they were emptied.

The Watkins Man would deliver the product my Mom had ordered the month before, and fill out a form for the products she wanted delivered the next month. This was the process before it became my turn. The Model A was a coupe, with a rumble seat. Inside, on the rumble seat was always a box of candy, one free piece for every item Mom had purchased.

The J. R. Watkins Company is still in business, still selling only natural, organic products. Company ads can be found in the national magazines of the day. And the product is available in several chain stores across the United States. But there’s no Model A Ford involved. Nor is there free candy for the kids.


Vicki Lane said...

When we moved to our farm, we found quite a few empty Watkins bottles in an old cabin and between the logs of the barn. The arrival of the peddler must have been such a thrill!

alex216 said...

I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.


Ellen Carter said...

In the 40s, I lived much of the year with my materal grandmother in rural Mississippi (the closest town was "Magnolia," nine miles away) and "the Watkins man" visited us once a month for the various items my grandmother ordered. Now at my age of 74+, I have often reflected with great joy at my recollection of this salesman pulling up in his black vehicle and having, for my grandmother, a large selection also of sewing needles, threads, cough medicine, and, sometimes, one or two pair of boots or shoes. His vehicle, which opened from the side, had many, many, many items!

The Watkins salesman was friendly and polite, and my grandmother was delighted to see him. They would talk a little while about just things in general. His visit was my touch with the outside world! Children in those days were very polite and never interrupted, but I loved to stand there and just look at his many, many wares.

Happy, happy memories.

Thank you so much for posting this article of history. You made my day!

CharlesOrlik said...

Hi Everyone,

Great Article and loved reading the stories!! Did you know Watkins is still alive and well here in 2013? We even have our originals that date back to the 1800's! I am a distributor and love representing this company!

You can find out more the product line and order at: http://www.watkinsonline.com or by calling 1-800-WATKINS. Give them Rep ID #398616.


Collin Blatt said...

My Great Grandpa was a Watkins man. From what I'm told he'd drive around the countryside (Here in Michigan) and pull in to a customer's house and be given a light breakfast and a cup of coffee. If he wasn't given a light breakfast he was at least given a cup of coffee and was expected to stay a little and chat before he sold his wares. Pretty neat.

Helen Buccini said...

I remember the Watkins man coming to our farm in the late thirties and forties. One of the favorite things my Grandmother would buy from him was the coconut custard pie filling. We always had a bottle of their liniment on the shelf and a can of salve that we called axle grease because of the color of it. Those things were our staples for cuts and bruises and aches and pains. I think they also bought something called udder cream, that was used on the cows that had just given birth. We were to be seen but not heard in those days, but always curious.