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!

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