This week in our county by county special we are highlighting Winona County.

Fox First News at Nine’s Zach Prelutsky tells us about an iconic company that has been in Winona for more than 130 years.

150 years ago, in a small Minnesota town, a man by the name of J.R. Watkins had an idea to create liniment, a pain reliever, to sell.

Watkins and a group of traveling salesman would go door to door around the state selling the product, the beginning of the Watkins company.

And they would use some innovative marketing strategies to help assure the confidence in what they were selling

 “One of the things that J.R. did that made him stand out during those early years in the 1860s and 70s was to guarantee his product.  He offered a money back guarantee if you weren’t completely satisfied.  Now during that time period that was unheard of,” said John Goplen, a Watkins Company Archivist. 

After less than 20 years in Plainview Minnesota, J.R. moved his small company to Winona.

“In 1885, J.R. moved his young company from Plainview to Winona Minnesota because at that time Winona was Minnesota’s third largest city,” said Goplen. “We were the banking hub, the transportation hub and there was a much larger labor pool here and being that his main product during that time period was liniment, the lumber mills that lined the Mississippi river in Winona offered a very good market for that liniment also.”

The turn of the 20th century also marked a turn for the company. More salesmen were hired and deployed to sell even more products. And a brand-new facility that currently takes up an entire block in Winona was on its way.

It was not an easy road for J.R. Watkins to build up his company.

“Most people come here, and they see these wonderful buildings, they see these products and they think J.R. was an instant success.  What they don’t realize is that it took J.R. 30 years to get to that point and he had a lot of setbacks, but he didn’t quit,” Goplen said. 

Following the death of J.R. in 1911, the Watkins company evolved over time, focusing on new products.

“The Watkins Company is a 150-year-old business that focuses on food products. Today we are probably best known for our vanilla and other extracts and spices such as black pepper and cinnamon,” said Goplen.

And new forms of sales

“Direct selling is still part of our business model, that too has evolved over 150 years for various reasons.  But the days of someone coming up and knocking on your door pretty much disappeared in the late 50s and early 1960s and a lot of that had to do with communities passing ordinances against door to door salespeople,” Goplen said. 

They would join the retail world in the late 1990s.

Today the seven-building headquarters is still operational, which includes a museum and is on the national register of historic places.

As a company that has been located in Winona for more than 130 years, you would be hard pressed to find someone who does not have a connection.

“Watkins is one of Winona’s oldest employers and I think if you were to walk around and interview native Winonans you would find out that everybody has either worked here or had a family member work here,” Goplen said. 

Today, products from Watkins can be found numerous retail stores across North America as well as at their headquarters in Winona.

In Winona, Zach Prelutsky, Fox First News at Nine.