From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Traveling Salesman Remembered

The Minnesota Woolen Mill salesman



Traveling salesman One hot afternoon every summer, the Minnesota Woolen Mill salesman came to visit in his dust-covered station wagon.

The back of his wagon was weighted down with suitcases, and the suitcases were stuffed with samples of all the Minnesota Woolen Mill merchandise for that year -- wool blankets, wool garments, and other winter items like flannel sheets, thermal underwear, and quilted nylon parkas.

When my mother granted permission, the salesman hauled the suitcases into our living room, and we sat down to hear his spiel and see what he was selling.

He had one sample of each item and a book of swatches to show the different colors available. In mid-summer, his goods seemed very warm indeed, especially when a sample garment was tried on to get an idea of the size needed.

If my mother decided to buy something, the salesman filled out the order form. Then he refolded his samples, packed his suitcases, loaded his stationwagon, and drove on to the next ranch. Several months later, a package from Minnesota Woolen Mill arrived at our mailbox.

Over the years, Mama bought several Minnesota Woolen Mill blankets. They were heavy and scratchy with a creamy white background and bold stripes. I still have the one that I used as a child, and it is still a heavy, warm blanket.

In my fabric scraps, I have a Minnesota Woolen Mill skirt from the winter that I was ten. It's a turquoise-and-gray plaid, with knife pleats all the way around, and it was an important piece in my winter dress-up wardrobe until I outgrew it. One of these days, it will become part of a wool quilt. For no practical reason, I will carefully remove and preserve its tag.

I think that the last summer my mother ordered anything from the Minnesota Woolen Mill salesman was 1967. She had thought for several years that the prices were much too expensive, and that year, she was disappointed in the quality of the merchandise.

For the first time, the Minnesota Woolen Mill salesman had skirts, dresses, and jackets made of bonded wool. Those garments did not have the usual nylon lining that was attached separately; rather, the fabric had wool on one side and lining fabric on the other side.

After my sister and I wore our bonded wool skirts a few times, the lining separated from the wool and the garments lost their shape. Furthermore, the wool was not as tightly woven as it had been in the past. Mama was irritated.

I don't remember the Minnesota Woolen Mill salesman stopping at our house after that. Perhaps he did, and my mother sent him on his way. Maybe the mill went out of business. Or maybe the salesman retired; his job surely demanded strength and stamina, and he was not young.

For many years, though, he brought a selection of quality winter goods to our living room, with an opportunity to see and touch that a mail-order catalog couldn't match.

5 comments:

ptg said...

Traveling salesmen, at least out here, where towns are 'far between' can't be profitable with the gasoline prices we have now. I used to run a mom & pop wallpaper store and dozens of salesman (and a few women) called regularly. Some of them were real characters.

Genevieve said...

Internet shopping is surely a lifesaver for folks who don't get to town often. I'm expecting mail order to make a modest recovery as well.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I think that Minnesota Woolen guy must have hit every ranch in the Sandhills. The last piece of clothing I had from him was an indestructible trapdoor union suit. It must have been an early model because there wasn't much itch in it and it never wore out. It started life in the big house then came to the bunkhouse as a hand-me-down and I wore it for years and years.

That peddler was one of many plying the Sandhills. Most were welcome but some turned into modern day grubline riders, becoming the bane of ranch wives and cooks. They would always manage to show up just at dinner time and squeeze in between the hands and the family at the table.

During haying there would be a couple of dozen people to be fed. It was not the time to test the patience and hospitality of the cook. She had started baking at 4 AM, would jump on a rake during the afternoon, then return to the kitchen for supper, often working until until 8PM.

Neighbors, guests and friends were always welcome at her table. Grublineing peddlers were met at the gate and turned away, losing both a meal and sale.

Thanks for another trip back home Genevieve,

A Friend in Nevada

Genevieve said...

Did you notice that there were a great many more traveling salesmen in the summer months than in the winter months? ;)

I had to laugh when you said the cook jumped on the rake in the afternoon -- so true that the ladies often helped in the hayfield as well as running the house and cooking for a big crew. With my mom, it was the mowing machine.

Genevieve said...

Did you notice that there were a great many more traveling salesmen in the summer than in the winter? ;)

I had to laugh when you said the cook jumped on the rake in the afternoon -- so true that the ladies often helped in the hayfield as well as running the house and cooking for the hay crew. With my mom, it was the mowing machine.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.