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The Watkins man

Red liniment can bring back memories for older prairie farmers.

The liniment, made from camphor and hot red pepper to mask minor muscle pain, was the first product in what became the Watkins’ Co. line of simple medicines, household cleaners and spices, says Pauline Atwood, who is researching the significance of the visits of the Watkins man to prairie farms.

“Before health care, people had to manage on their own,” said Atwood, who lives in Edmonton. “Unlike some snake oil salesmen, the J.R. Watkins products worked.”

She said some people told her that if they were really sick they would put drops of red liniment on a spoon with sugar and swallow it.

Another popular product was the petro-carbo salve, developed in 1888. The black ointment, which was sold in an exotic coloured tin, was refined from carbolic acid and held a distinctive aroma.

“People said it was good for farmers’ hands and cows’ udders,” said Atwood, who is collecting people’s stories and hopes to put them into a book. However, her sources of stories are elderly people who may die before she can get their memories. As a result, she is asking people to mail or phone her with their stories.

J.R. Watkins started the company in 1868 in Minnesota. The products were manufactured in that state and had gone international by 1913 with a branch office in Winnipeg.

Atwood said Watkins spices were awarded a gold medal for their quality in 1928 at the Paris Exposition and the company was one of the first to offer money-back guarantees. Unlike Eatons and Sears that had mail-order catalogues, Watkins sent travelling sales representatives to consumers in Canada, the United States and Australia.

Atwood said the 1930s to 1950s was the era of the Watkins farm visits to the Canadian Prairies, which was before people became mobile. She said her parents, who homesteaded near Stony Plain, Alta., visited town once a month and Edmonton, which was 30 kilometres away, only twice a year.

As a result, a visit from the Watkins man was cause for excitement. Not only did he bring items that farmers couldn’t produce on their own, he also brought news of the community and from farther away.

The Watkins man usually wore a suit and carried a suitcase of samples. If a farmer bought a product, he would go out to the buggy, wagon or car and deliver it to the house immediately.

Atwood said one woman told her about the commotion that would erupt in the yard when the Watkins man drove in, sending ducks and chickens flying. Another talked of how the Watkins man always arrived at her place at mealtime because her mom was a noted bread baker.

Food is a popular memory. People recall the different flavours of cordial drinks offered by Watkins that were doled out as a special treat to the children when company came. Several mentioned the vanilla and cinnamon the company sold that led to the success of classic farm desserts such as cinnamon buns and rice pudding.

Atwood said the company also packaged its products attractively in tins and glass bottles that could serve as ornaments.

“Getting a glass from the Watkins man was something special. I remember being careful with glass.”

Today the company exists but sells more through its website than personal visits. It has also expanded into candles and lotions but continues its emphasis on home remedies and natural food ingredients.

To share your stories, phone Atwood at 780-430-8774, e-mail or mail to Box 59074, RPO Riverbend, Edmonton, Alta., T6H 5Y3.

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