Nearly 15 years ago Kurt Reinhard, of Galesville Wis., an antique dealer, founded the Watkins Collectors Club. Each year since, a group of avid Watkins collectors has met for a convention in Winona, in the area where it all started.
Photo by Jen Burris
Members of the Watkins Collector’s Club have collected items similar to these items currently displayed at Watkins Museum.
Reinhard grew up in Winona, and lived near the Watkins plant. Over the years, Reinhard bought and sold antiques, while also collecting Watkins items. At an estate auction in Missouri of a Watkins dealer 15 years ago, Reinhard introduced to a large group of Watkins collectors. “After talking with other Watkins collectors, someone suggested that since I was retiring I should make a club,” Reinhard said. The club has had members all over the U.S. with as many as 250 members at one time. While the numbers have since dwindled, the interest in Watkins has not.
Each year, the group visits a Watkins-related site and spends time exploring what Winona has to offer. This year the group visited both the Watkins Museum and the Polish Museum, making the best of their 12-hour day of activities.
Ron Manzow, a Watkins collectors club member, runs the Watkins museum in Plainview, Minn. J.R. Watkins spent 17 years in Plainview, where he started his company before moving to Winona. According to Manzow, the Watkins museum in Plainview is the house where J.R. lived and mixed his first batch of Dr. Ward’s liniment in a wooden barrel in the middle of his kitchen. Manzow has learned a lot about the company through old Watkins letters. “I transcribed 10 years of Watkins correspondence, from 1893 to 1904; it was a real eye opener,” Manzow noted. Watkins was an innovator, who created sales tactics that are still used today, he added. “J.R. really developed the idea of direct selling to the public.”
Marsha Watkins, of Ohio, the club’s newsletter editor, became involved in the group along with her father about 12 years ago. As far as they know, they are not related to the J.R. Watkins family. “My dad used to work in the woods and would find Watkins bottles and containers in dump piles,” she explained. “He started collecting them because they had his name on them and he thought that was pretty neat.”
Marsha Watkins began collecting spice tins and bottles from antique stores as well, and ran across an ad for a collector club on eBay. She and her dad joined and began visiting Winona each year. She has worked as both the club’s treasurer and newsletter editor, putting out four newsletters each year, complete with photographs.
Mary Watkins, of Ilinois, one of the oldest members of the collectors club, is related to J.R. Watkins. Her father shared common ancestors with the Watkins founder, and he and his brothers all worked for the Watkins company at one time or another. Mary Watkins became involved with the club about 10 years ago, after a friend spotted an ad for the group in a magazine. “I’m surprised so many people are interested in the Watkins family,” she said with a smile. “The meetings are nostalgic and fun, and I always enjoy coming.”
Mary’s grandfather, Joseph Watkins, was a Watkins dealer and would order Watkins products by the railroad car. He enlisted his four sons to help sell the products in neighboring towns. “It really was a family business,” Mary Watkins added.
John Goplen, a Watkins Museum employee, thinks the collector’s club is great way to learn about history and celebrate heritage. Goplen notes that the fact that the company has remained Winona-based, and is still a family held company, gives it a certain uniqueness in the business world. “The enthusiasm the members hold for the company and products is just amazing,” Groplen added.
J.R. Watkins began his company in 1868 in Plainview, Minn. In 1885 the company relocated to Winona, where it has remained ever since. The company began as a medical company that did direct sales to the public by visiting farms with the company’s products.
Not only did the Watkins company develop the idea of direct sales, they also started a trial use of their products. When dealers called upon houses that were uninterested in purchasing items, the dealer would leave a bottle, usually of Dr. Ward’s liniment, in case they wanted to try it. The dealer would advise the customer that when he returned if they had not used or liked the product they would not be obligated to pay for it. Often the dealer would return and the residents would purchase another bottle of the liniment.
The company soon began to expand to other products, including spices, and personal care items. The company grew through the 1940s, but after WWII, American purchasing habits changed. The company hit a rough patch in the 1970s, filed for bankruptcy and was eventually purchased by Minneapolis investor Irwin L. Jacobs in 1978. His son currently runs the company. The company still does direct sales, employing about 20,000 dealers, but they’ve branched out to national retail chains as well. In just five years the company will turn 150.
For more information on Watkins visit the Watkins Museum at 150 Liberty Street, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Also consider visiting the Watkins Museum in Plainview, Minnesota at 140 3rd Street, open Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Both museums are free admission, but do accept donations.