Friday, July 31, 2015

A Christmas Story

So, as my Grandma told the story to me many, many years ago, this is how our family wreath business was borne. 

"When I was a young girl in Norge (Norway) back in the late 1800's, my mother used to make a wreath each year from evergreens we children would gather from the forest alongside the fjord where we lived. It wouldn't take many boughs, and I liked gathering them with my brothers. As I grew older, my mother showed me how to make the wreath that we would display on the door of our small cottage each year. Ours was a tough life and all of my brothers eventually died at sea, as either fishermen or merchant sailors.

After I met your Grandpa in England during WWI, we moved to America and, because the people in New York told us that there were many Norwegians living in Minnesota, we moved to St. Paul. Our small family had a hard 'go of it' during the Great Depression as did all of our friends. However, each Christmas I loved making a nice wreath and hung it on our front door; it always reminded me of my own mother so many years before.

One year when your father [John Victor Mickman] was about 12 years old, he came home from school and saw my nice wreath on the door. He wanted to buy a Christmas present for me, and had an idea that maybe he could sell that wreath down the street to someone. Well, that is just what he did. He walked up and down Summit Avenue where all the rich people lived, until someone purchased this wreath. [My dad said it was James J. Hill's daughter, founders of the Great Northern Railroad that purchased this first wreath.]

With his newly earned money, your dad went to a store and purchased a lovely set of porcelain figurines - the set that I have on my bedroom bureau. The sales clerk was kind enough to wrap this gift for your dad, and he came home and presented it to me. Well, I knew your dad didn't have ANY money and I pinched his ear until he told me how he got the money to pay for the present. He finally confessed that he had taken our wreath off of the front door and sold it down on Summit Ave. I couldn't imagine that anyone would want to pay money for such a thing, and asked your dad if he thought he could sell any more. He said he thought he could sell as many as I could make!
So, your Grandpa, your dad and I gathered as many boughs as we could and I made wreaths out of all the boughs we could find. Your dad was able to sell these wreaths as fast as I made them, and he sold every single one  - we didn't even have a wreath on our own door that year [of 1934]."

I am pleased to say that our family’s tradition of making wreaths and selling (all of them!) is alive and well. Each year over half million families all over the country will welcome home friends and family for the Holidays with a Mickman Brothers Christmas Wreath gracing the entryway of their homes. Our family business, and in particular the Wreath Business, continues to be my favorite hobby. I’m fortunate that people choose to pay for my labor of love.

John S. Mickman


Monday, July 20, 2015

John E. Mickman: An Original Entrepreneur Part II

Last week I explained how Grampa had many businesses over his lifetime, all pursuits of a small business entrepreneur. At this point in the story, we are returning to Grampa's garage with two 'Cowboys' of Chlorine.

Immediately upon our return to Grampa' house, we would unload the Cowboys of chlorine and carry them into the garage. When we were too little, Grampa would unload the heavy, glass Cowboys full of 5 gallons of pure chlorine; when we were strong enough to handle these big bottles by ourselves (as a team), Grampa delegated this job to us.

Once unloaded into the garage, one Cowboy at a time needed to be placed in position to be emptied. Grampa had invented and patented many things over the years and he devised lots of time saving procedures as well. For the Hi-Dro Bleach business he improvised a system that worked extremely well and was simple at the same time. He obtained a 'refrigerator tank' (the enamel coated, metal casing of a refrigerator) and set on a tall bench in the garage and turned it on its side, open end up. With the 'freezer' compartment on one end, we would lift the rubber corked Cowboy up and tip it partially in the big part of the tank, with the bulk of the Cowboy securely resting in the freezer portion of the refrigerator tank; it fit perfectly and never budged, once properly secured into place.

Then we would uncork the Cowboy and allow the chlorine to pour into the big empty tank. 'Glop, glop, glop, glop the chlorine would splash into the empty tank, and when almost empty, we would 'up end' the Cowboy to drain the last of the chlorine into the tank. Whew, this was a smelly job and our young eyes would burn during this part.

Being a very thrifty person, Grampa didn't want to 'waste' money using city water for the bleach, "Why waste all that money", he would say. "We have a whole lake full of water right at the bottom of the hill. Plus that, who wouldn't want to wash their clothes in nice Lake Owasso water?" Mark and I always wondered about this part using lake water to wash clothes, but we were never in a position to offer our opinion, and we were certainly never asked what we thought about these things.

To take advantage of the free supply of water, Grampa had buried a pipe from the pump in his boat house up to the garage. Then, when we were all ready, Mark or I would hold a hose into the refrigerator tank with the 5 gallons of chlorine in it and Grampa would walk down to the lake and turn on the pump. Out of the hose would come the lake water and into the awaiting chlorine. While one of us held the hose, the other brother would use the 'bleached' white wooden paddle to mix the chlorine and lake water into an even slurry. (You can only image how white this wooden paddle was after years of use.)

Try to imagine the two of us, from about 8 years old to 14 years old, balancing high up on a rickety bench in the old garage leaning over to fill the big tank and mixing up the bleach. Gramma always gave us our 'bleach clothes' to wear for these days, because with all the splashing, anything we wore would get big white bleach burned spots and holes in it. Our mom, Lucy, use to get pretty upset if we came home with ruined clothes from making bleach with Grampa.

There never seemed to be any big rush to get to the next part of the process; Grampa would only bottle just enough bleach for the orders he had because he didn't have much space to store the finished products. All the customers were housewives that took delivery of their bleach order in one gallon glass jugs. Where did Grampa get all the glass jugs? Well, he certainly wasn't going to buy them; he got them for free from the pop vendors at the State Fair that received the 'syrup' for coke, crème soda, root beer, etc. in these glass jugs, that were normally thrown away. Recycling in its purest form, and 50 years ago at that!

Of course all these jugs had thick, sticky, dried syrup stuck in the bottom of them and someone had to get this mess cleaned out of the jugs. Who's job do you suppose that was? Mark and I became extremely adept at cleaning these glass jugs and devised a little production line to get all of these jugs cleaned; the faster we cleaned the jugs, the sooner we could go swimming or sailing! "Make sure you boys get all of that syrup out of there", Grampa would remind us. "My customers don't want to see any root beer in their bleach. If the customers are happy, they will always come back and do more business with you!"  
 "OK Grampa. We're going to do a good job - just you wait and see," Mark and I would chime back. "You'll be able to drink right out of these jugs when we're done." And indeed he could, and would. "Boys-O-Boys-O-Boys, that's a good job", he would say to us.

Bottling Day was a day we always began by dressing in our 'bleach clothes'; this was a messy job for a couple of little kids. Grampa had a certain hose, just the right length, with which we would siphon the bleach from the refrigerator tank into the one gallon glass jugs. "To get the siphon started boys, you just make sure one end is up there in the tank and into the bleach. Then, you just suck on this other end until the bleach starts running down by itself. Make sure you boys don't get any bleach in your mouth", he would remind us. To this day I'm still pretty good at siphoning things, although the occasion doesn't occur with any degree of regularity any longer.

The hose we used was very soft and pliable so we could pinch it off between gallon jugs. One brother would work the hose, while the other brother would remove the full jugs from the bench and keep a supply of empty jugs ready to be filled. The jug filling bench was at knee height so this part of the job always went pretty good. We usually filled up 50 - 60 gallon jugs at a time.

After the jugs were all filled, we screwed on the caps and then applied the Hi-Dro Bleach branded labels. It took some time to get the knack of getting the labels on perfectly straight, but with practice we got pretty good at it. Gramma would give us one of her cake pans partially filled with clean (city) water, into which we would submerge the labels, one at time, and then apply them to the gallon jugs. "Make sure you boys get those labels on perfectly straight. The label is the key to the whole business. Our bleach is the best bleach in the whole world, and the way the customers remember Hi-Dro Bleach is by the labels you boys are putting on", Grampa would stress every single time. "Yes Grampa, look what a good job we're doing; perfectly straight - and clean. We think every bottle looks perfect", we would reply. Mark and I really did get very good at putting these labels on, even though it took quite a bit of practice. Each label went on a little bit better and a little bit faster. We got to be professional 'Label Put-er, On-ers'. After some time, even Grampa couldn't do a better job.

Mark and I loved bleach delivery days because we knew we'd get at least two classes of A&W Root Beer (one going, and one returning) from the stand on Rice Street, and there was no real work for us to do. We'd just ride along for the fun of it, listening to Grampa's stories about the great country of England, his ideas for another business or his plans to have us go to the Black Hills with him and Gramma to pick pine cones for her Wreath Business. Grampa was never short of stories and schemes.

Grampa called these bleach delivery runs his 'Route', and after a couple of years of 'running the Route' with Grampa, we got to know the outskirts of downtown St. Paul pretty well. All his customers were housewives, and on nice summer days Grampa would spend plenty of time on the back stoops of his customers' houses talking and showing off his two helpers - Mark and me. "You boys keep your ears open and your mouths shut when I'm talking to my customers", he would remind us. "When our customers like us, they keep buying bleach from us. It's a lot harder to get a new customer than it is to keep an old customer. You boys pay attention."

We always did pay attention, and when invited to, greeted the customers properly, "Good morning Mrs. O'Sullivan. It is nice to see you again", was always a safe one to start out with. Our only job was to pick up the empty bleach bottle and bring it back to the panel truck.

Grampa's Route usually took us until about noon and we'd always be home to Gramma's for lunch. We NEVER ate at a restaurant with Gramma and Grampa. Ever. Of course we couldn't swim for an hour after lunch (you boys will get the cramps and drowned), but we could sail, and away we would go. All afternoon.

To most people, a sniff of bleach is an unpleasant sensation. However for me, whenever I catch the scent of chlorine in bleach, I'm carried back to my Grampa's garage and pause for a moment to recall the times my brother Mark and I worked with Grampa in the Hi-Dro Bleach business.

Grampa certainly instilled his entrepreneur spirit in his son, John V. Mickman, and I caught the bug too. Thanks Grampa; I'm enjoying the ride!

John S. Mickman

Apprentice Bleach Maker

                                                         Grampa dying Lycopodium!

John E. Mickman: An Original Entrepreneur Part I

My Grampa Mickman (we called him Grampa Lake because he and Gramma lived on Lake Owasso in Shoreview) never worked a day in his life for anyone. Actually my Gramma Lake didn’t either except for during World War II when she worked at the Armory in New Brighton, MN to help with the war effort. Gramma and Grampa were actually poor by today’s standards, but none of us knew this at the time. There was always enough food, laughter and plenty of work.

Grampa had many businesses throughout the years including:
·         Sunshine Fruit Nectar
·         WW I buttons worn by parents of soldiers fighting in 'The Great War'
·         Ezy-Way Wall Paint Cleaner (Tri sodium Phosphate based)
·         Dulche de Leche (desert pudding; a recipe from an Argentine gentleman)
·         The Lycopodium Foundation, a northern MN moss treated and dyed red with Grampa's secret formula which Gramma used on her wreaths)
·         Hi-Dro Bleach,
·         and many others.

However, his most successful business was the ‘Lightening Company’. The life cycle of this business was during the Great Depression and he made a great deal of money during those years. He had distributors all over the world and my dad's stamp collection was second to none. One day when he brought his collection to school for 'Show and Tell', the teacher asked him where he had gotten all the marvelous stamps. "Well, I got them off of envelopes" came my dad's reply. "Where else would you get stamps?!" he asked her. Dad could never recall what happened to his stamp collection,  but in his later years he was certain it would have been worth a small fortune.  

‘Lightening’ was a product one could pour into a car battery that would bring it 'back to life'. This business lasted well into the Great Depression before its 'business cycle' ended.

Another one of Grampa's businesses was Hi-dro Bleach - - Cleans like the Sunshine!, was still 'a going concern' in the 1950's and 60's. Grandpa had hundreds of customers, mostly housewives, from Shoreview all the way down to Hastings to whom he home delivered his brand of bleach. Fortunately, my brother Mark and I worked with Grampa in this business so it can be recorded for posterity. Here is how it worked, at least from the eyes of a little kids.

Mark and I liked to stay over at Gramma and Grampa Lake’s house because that is where we kept our sailboat. But of course, we couldn’t stay over there without helping with the work, and we knew this was part of the deal; we didn’t know that kids less than 12 years old weren’t supposed to be mixing chemicals and working so hard. We thought kids were doing this all over the place.

Each morning we would get up and have a light breakfast with tea. Being little kids that didn't really like the taste of tea, Mark and I would mix a lot of Borden’s Sweetened Condensed Milk with the tea to make it sweet and tasty. Grampa was from England and Gramma from Norway so we had tea for breakfast, noon and afternoon break. I still like tea, but I need to mix in a bunch of sugar and cream to make it taste right. Coffee too.

Anyway, after breakfast on bleach making days, Grampa, Mark and I would pile into his old Chevy panel truck and drive down Rice Street to somewhere just north of downtown St. Paul. There was a large chemical plant down there, and almost everyone seemed to know Grandpa on a first name basis. "Well, what'll ya have t'day John", they would ask Grampa. "I'm here to pick up s'more chlorine Tony", he would call back. Grampa knew everyone by their first name and always reminded us that remembering a man's name was 'good for business'. "A man's name is the sweetest music he will every hear", Grampa would often remind us.

Then, the warehouseman would call out to Grampa,  "Well then John, pull up to the dock 'n we'll be loadin' ya". So Grampa would back his old panel truck up to the loading dock and the three of us would get out and walk around the plant while we waited to be loaded.

The men at the chemical plant seemed to like Mark and me, and went out of their way to show us around all the plant. (They probably didn't see many little kids there at the chemical plant.) Railcars would be unloading, only the Lord knew what, into giant vats and some of the vats were pumping chemicals into small containers they called 'car boys'. Mark and I thought they were called 'Cowboys' and whenever we were around, the workers called them Cowboys too.

"So how many Cowboys of chlorine will ya be needin ta'day John", they would ask Grampa. We always got the same amount, two Cowboys. And what is a Cowboy? A Cowboy is a 5 gallon glass bottle with an airy frame of 1 x 4's around it to protect the glass if lightly dropped or knocked about by another Cowboy. The men would load up the two Cowboys and off we would go back to Grandpa's garage at the house.

On the way back, we would ALWAYS stop at the A&W Root Beer stand and get a dime glass of root beer. "This is the best root beer in the whole world" Grampa always assured us. I traveled many thousands of miles with my Grampa, and there are two things he always stopped for, A&W Root Beer stands and Wall Drug of South Dakota. We ALWAYS stopped at Wall Drug on the way to and from the Black Hills to pick pine cones, and we never missed an A&W Root Beer stand. Never.

John Mickman

Read Part 2 about Grampa Lake in next week's eNewsletter

Monday, July 13, 2015

Glittered Cones

by John S. Mickman

Our grandmother learned how to make wreath from her mom in the late 1800’s while growing up on a fjord in Norway. Then during the Great Depression, she started her own wreath business in St. Paul; this extra income helped immensely to sustain their family. She and my grandpa never worked for anyone, and always earned their living with a string of small businesses.

By the time my brother Mark and I were old enough to work (in the mind of our family) at the ages of about 8 or 9, we were borrowed to Gramma and Grampa to help during the summer in their various businesses. Grampa’s Bleach business (Hydro-Bleach) as well as Gramma’s Wreath Business were two of the pursuits we worked at during those years in the 1950's.

What did we do in the Wreath Business during the Summer? Well, painting and glittering pine cones of course. It went like this:

Grampa would get his old 50 gallon drum that had a lid, and bring it to the top of the slope that descended to the lake they lived on, Lake Owasso in Shoreview, MN. Then, Mark and I would dump a bunch of cones from burlap sacks and pour some white paint into the drum. After securing the lid, we would roll the drum down the hill, mainly holding it back so that it didn't roll over us and end up in the lake!
On the trip down the slope, the cones would bounce around inside the drum with the paint so all the tips would be painted. When we got the barrel safely to the flat spot just before the lake, we'd stop the drum, pop open the lid and dump the cones on the big sheet of plastic. Gramma would then use a shaker to shake silver glitter onto the cones. Mark and I thought they looked pretty cool! Then, he and I would roll the drum back up the hill to do another batch.
In the hot summer sun, the cones would dry rapidly and the four of us would periodically gather them together and put them back into the burlap sacks. Grampa kept the supplies coming and carried the finished cones to the top up the hill. "Boyz-oh-boyz, those cones are heavy" he would say to Mark and me. During those years Gramma made about 5,000 wreaths a year, and wired 5 cones on each wreath - we painted and glittered 25,000 cones each summer!
Gramma and Grampa made this project fun and we could easily see the fruits of our labor. When we got too hot we went swimming. When we got too tired we all rested. There was no rush, but Grandma was very picky about the 'look' of each cone. We always did a good job, and although we didn't earn much, my brother Mark and I always had our own money.

Today was one of many 'Pine Cone Painting' days at Mickman Brothers. We do semi-truck
load per day with a machine we invented that does a wonderful job. Some years ago I remembered glittering cones with Gramma and experimented with adding that process to our pine cone painting program. Our Wreath Production Supervisor, Berta, came up with a couple of good ideas that helped the process immensely.

So now, all of the Classic Style Wreaths and Sprays you order have white-tipped, glittered cones and they look awesome. To my knowledge, we are the only large wreath company in the nation that adds this, what I think is a great accent, to their pine cones.

All thanks to Gramma. I hope you like them!