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For Watkins, it all began here

For Watkins, it all began here
Ron Manzow is pictured with a display of old Watkins products at the J.R. Watkins House in Plainview.
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Most of us are familiar with and love J.R. Watkins' Natural Products in Winona, but the J.R. Watkins home in Plainview is where it all started in 1868.

Joseph Ray Watkins, better known as J.R. Watkins, lived in Plainview with his family for 17 years. It was there that his business began, when he mixed his first batch of liniment in a wooden barrel in the middle of the kitchen and sold it to local farmers.

By the mid-1870s, he began to expand his product line to include salves, ointments and conditioning powders.

In 1885, Watkins moved his company from Plainview to the booming lumber town of Winona, which boasted five railroads and was an important port on the Mississippi River. The company's headquarters and manufacturing facilities remain there today.

Today, the Watkins home in Plainview is a museum, with several replicas of Watkins family pieces, such as J.R. Watkins’ desk, family chairs from the era, the wooden barrel and displays of Watkins product memorabilia.

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Ron Manzow, volunteer curator at the J.R. Watkins home, says, "I started collecting (Watkins memorabilia) in the spring of 2008, knowing absolutely nothing about them, but with the help of John Goplen, archivist at J.R. Watkins Naturals and the Watkins museum in Winona, and discovering the Watkins Collectors Club … I jumped into the arena of the 'Watkins collector.'"

On display in the Watkins home are various bottles and tins that have been collected and donated, mostly by Manzow. When he is looking for items, he says he looks for "the oldest items that contain the markings 'The J.R. Watkins Medical Company.'"

Those markings date the items prior to 1918, before the name was shortened to the J.R. Watkins Co. These items are more rare and command a higher price, but they are well worth the effort to uncover.

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Bottle labels and tins that show J.R.’s photo facing the front instead of the common side profile that was used in later years are a good find for any collector of Watkins products, as well as corked bottles, which are older that those with screw tops.

If the item says "Watkins Incorporated" on it, it is a new bottle that has been made to resemble the older ones.

Collectors who want to start a collection of Watkins products will find that there is no real Watkins price guide.

"I use the 'Watkins Almanacs' as resources to identify the age of the various products," Manzow says. "They are a wealth of information."

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Watkins products can be found at flea markets, garage and estate sales, and anywhere collectible items are sold.

"I have done the majority of my collecting in antique shops, where I have become an expert of sniffing out almost anything Watkins," Manzow says. "Once the word spreads that you are a collector, many people will offer you items and even do some 'picking' for you."

Another reason people start collections is because certain items bring back a pleasant memory of the past.

"For me it was the Watkins nectar bottle, which is correctly called 'Watkins Beverage Base,'" Manzow says. "It was that thick, orange, gooey 'stuff' that you poured out of the large glass container and, mixing it with water, it produced a delicious orange drink — it was quite the treat when I was a youngster growing up on the farm in the '50s.

"Since then I’ve added several other flavors to the collection and I smile each time I look at them lined up side by side on the shelf at the Watkins House."

When visiting the J.R. Watkins home, Manzow hopes people enjoy discovering the Watkins' humble beginnings, "when he was struggling to get his business off the ground and developing his ideas of direct sales and selling the 'Watkins Way.'"

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