Kool-Aid-a name simple but catchy, a product unprepossessing but salable. Today, a household word for millions. The Kool-Aid story is the American dream come true, the classic tale of a young man with brains, imagination, a strong work ethic and merchandising ability who was able to parlay a few simple chemicals into a multi-million dollar business—rising from sodhouse to mansion in one lifetime.
Kool-Aid itself was born in Hastings and reached maturity in Chicago. The Kool-Aid story is also the story of Edwin E. Perkins and his family. Born in Lewis, Iowa, on January 8, 1889, Edwin was the oldest son of David and Kizandra Perkins, whose families had migrated from eastern states in an earlier day. Kizzie’s father had once been a station agent at the Julesburg stage station on the Oregon Trail, and in 1893, the Perkins family sold their general store in Iowa and moved to a farm in Furnas County, Nebraska. There they lived in a three-room sodhouse which was distinguished from others because it had wooden floors and calcimined walls. They hauled their water from the well a mile away. When it was time for the children to go to school, they walked three miles across the prairie to a one-room schoolhouse.
The 1890’s in Nebraska were grim years of drought, unrelenting heat and grasshopper invasions. Many destitute families survived only because food and clothing were shipped from Aid Societies in the East. But although the Perkins family lived on the farm for seven years, its members were able to survive without charity. Part of the reason was undoubtedly that they had some savings to fall back on, but most of it was that the family was hard-working. The father labored long hours in the fields, tending the crops, the garden, caring for the milk cows and building up a herd of pedigreed Poland China hogs. The mother raised poultry, made butter and cheese, and every Saturday would load the children and the produce into the buggy, harness up old Nellie, and drive ten miles to Beaver City to make her rounds selling butter and eggs to cash customers. There was little time for leisure.
By the end of the decade, the family traded the farm for a general store in the village of Hendley, and on January 1, 1900, they moved there so the children would be closer to schools. There were eventually ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. After five years in the general store, David Perkins was able to build a new store building, a frame one with a sign on it: “D.M. Perkins-General Merchandise.”
In his after-school hours, 11-year-old Edwin began clerking in the store, sometimes turning the revolving candy case so fast that the customers would have to call out, “Slow Down! Slow down!” so that they could make their selections of penny candy. A family friend brought home packages of a newfangled dessert from a shopping trip to Hastings. It was called Jell-O, and it came in “Six Delicious Flavors.” Edwin was entranced with it and persuaded his father to carry it in the store. For the rest of his life, he recounted how the Six Delicious Flavors influenced his decision to get into the pre-packaged food business.
In a magazine sold in the general store, Edwin saw an advertisement, ”Be a manufacturer — Mixer’s Guide tells how — write today,” and sent off to Ft. Madison, Iowa, to get some formulas and labels with his name printed on them. The labels read “Manufactured by Perkins Products Co., Hendley, Nebr.” The youngster, by now 12 or 13 years old, made a nuisance of himself in his mother’s kitchen, making pungent extracts, medicines and other concoctions suggested in the packet.
Edwin also noticed sales opportunities in which people could buy merchandise from wholesalers and manufacturers and sell it door-to-door for what were advertised as “great profits.” Before long, he bought a small hand printing press and rubber-stamp making equipment so he could do his own printing. For the four years after he finished high school, he published the local weekly newspaper, the Hendley Delphic, and turned out job-printing orders, including his own Perkins Products Co. labels.
During those years Edwin was also the village postmaster, and in the back of the Hendley post office, he put his printing equipment and set up a mail order business for his products. Business was so brisk that it increased the rating of the post office from a “cancellation” basis to a respectable salaried classification. Perkins made and sold bluing, perfume, and other preparations coming out of the chemical set. These were sold through sales agents by what was known as “trust scheme” methods, the agent being trusted with the merchandise and rewarded with a premium when he sold the goods and sent in the money. It was the same kind of business procedure he had seen advertised in magazines.
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