Monday, July 20, 2015

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

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