Jeff Manes: Lowell couple ‘sold’ on J.R. Watkins
September 21, 2012 3:56PM
Scott Irwin, 39, of Lowell and his wife, Tonya, have sold J.R. Watkins Natural Products for about a year. “We used (the) products for four years before we decided to sell them,” he said. | Photo provided
At a glance
For more information about J.R. Watkins Natural Products, go to www.watkinsonline.com/Irwin, email email@example.com or call 690-3285.
Updated: October 24, 2012 6:04AM
“... Papa would do whatever he could
Preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of Dr. Good.”
— lyrics by Bob Stone from
“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” performed by Cher
Scott Irwin is a Watkins man. The company has been selling products with natural ingredients door-to-door since J.R. Watkins founded it in 1868.
I met Irwin at this year’s Lake County Fair, where he was peddling his wares.
Irwin, 39, lives in a modest apartment in Lowell with his wife, Tonya. They’ve been married six years and have a daughter, Josie, 15, and a son, Max, 8.
The pony-tailed Irwin has a voice I would call elfin; he is disabled, but not on disability.
Did you attend Lowell High School?
“Yes, I’ve lived in Lowell my entire life; I like southern Lake County,” he said.”
“I’m a movie buff and enjoy professional wrestling.”
A few of your favorite movies and wrestlers?
“ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Pulp Fiction.’ As far as wrestlers, I like Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels.”
Scott, it’s difficult to ask this question with a straight face, but is pro wrestling fake?
“It’s scripted, but everything they do hurts.”
You walk with a cane.
“I have a bad back.”
Did you have a specific injury?
“No, my back problems are from working in retail for 17 years — climbing ladders and lifting heavy stuff. My L-3, L-4 and L-5 discs are shot — bone on bone.
“I can’t get any medical help as far as disability. My Medicaid was taken away because I have a 401(k). It’s a catch-22 situation; I’m not allowed to touch the 401(k).”
How long have you and Tonya been hawking J.R. Watkins products?
“About a year now.”
Tell me about the company.
“It all started in the kitchen of J.R. Watkins in Plainview, Minn. That’s where he mixed up a wooden barrel of Dr. Ward’s Red Liniment; J.R. purchased the formula from the good doctor.”
Was Watkins a doctor?
“No, but he was a brilliant entrepreneur who believed in the power of herbs and organic extracts.
“In fact, J.R. Watkins believed in his pain liniment so much that he placed a trial mark line on every bottle. Basically, every drop of liniment from the top of the bottle to trial mark line was free if you weren’t satisfied with Dr. Ward’s Red Liniment. As you can see by the trial mark line on this bottle, the same guarantee exists.”
A marketing genius!
“Watkins would travel door-to-door, always ending the day at a favorite customer’s home so he’d receive a meal and a place to sleep.
“Eventually, he hired field salesmen as his business expanded.”
Is the business still based in Plain-view?
“No, Watkins moved to Winona, Minn., in 1885. The company headquarters is located in that Mississippi River bluff town to this day.”
How many independent J.R. Watkins distributors are there in the United States?
“About 25,000 of us.”
How many products?
Scott, the packaging and labeling of these concoctions and remedies are delightfully nostalgic — right out of the 1800s.
“The same recipes are used that were used in the 1860s. The factory is run by people; they just got their first bottling machine last year.”
How did you get into this?
“Tonya suffers from migraine headaches; she has to watch what she eats and smells. She can’t have MSG, nitrates, sulfates ... . She needed all-natural.
“We met a couple at the Lake County Fair who had a booth like the one Tonya and I have now. We tried a couple of items on display and they worked for her. We used J.R. Watkins products for four years before we decided to sell them. If our products are natural or organic, they’re certified by a third company.”
What are some of the most popular J.R. Watkins products?
“Our USDA-certified organic Madagascar bourbon pure vanilla extract is one of the top sellers. It’s double-strained and made from the world’s finest vanilla beans. Our pure granulated — not ground — black pepper is popular. J.R. Watkins uses top-quality Malabar and Lampong peppercorns. And, it’s sneezeless.”
How much does a 2-ounce can of black pepper cost?
“We have a pain spray that my daughter uses on her muscles after marching band. Watkins Cough Syrup & Decongestant comes in old-fashioned wild-cherry and pine flavors. Our petro-carbo medicated first-aid salve has been a staple for generations; it comes in a round tin.
“J.R. Watkins offers everything from foot lotions to phosphate-free, biodegradable laundry detergent — 80 loads per box.”
In the 21st century, it’s probably not so much door-to door salesmanship anymore is it?
“No, we do a lot of fairs, festivals and farmers’ markets — lots of word-of-mouth.”
What’s one of your better events as far as sales?
“The Hobart Lakefront Fest is a good one.
Built from 1911-13, the J.R. Watkins Medical Co. is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The complex was designed by renowned architect George Washington Maher.
In 2002, a made-for-cable film entitled “Door to Door” told the story of Watkins salesman Bill Porter, who worked a route despite suffering from cerebral palsy.
Today, with the aid of a cane, Scott Irwin helps feed his family by selling J.R. Watkins Natural Products. The tradition continues.
And it all started in a small river town nestled near Minneapolis.