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MARY BRASWELL: Looking Back - Dec. 15, 2013

HISTORY: Let's go shopping for American-made gifts.

Mary Braswell

Mary Braswell

While it has become increasingly more difficult to solely purchase ‘Made in America’ products, this Christmas shopping trip will attempt to just that. Here’s hoping there is something on this list for everyone on your list.

Louisville Slugger

— In many ways,the history of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat began in the talented hands of 17-year-old John A. “Bud” Hillerich. Bud’s father, J. F. Hillerich, owned a growing woodworking shop in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1880s when Bud began working for him.

— Legend has it that Bud, who played baseball himself, slipped away from work one afternoon in 1884 to watch Louisville’s major league team, the Louisville Eclipse. The team’s star, Pete Browning, mired in a hitting slump, broke his bat. Bud invited Browning over to his father’s shop to make him a new one. With Browning at his side giving advice, Bud hand-crafted a new bat from a long slab of wood. Browning got three hits with it the next day.

— J. F. Hillerich had little interest in making bats; he saw the company future in stair railings, porch columns and swinging butter churns. For a brief time in the 1880s, he turned away ball players. Bud persisted and his father, pleased with his son’s enthusiasm, relented. The rest is baseball history.

Whitman’s Chocolates

— In 1842, a 19-year-old Quaker named Stephen F. Whitman set up a small “confectionery and fruiterer shoppe” on Market Street near the Philadelphia waterfront.

— Whitman knew that presentation could be as important as taste to some customers so he created beautiful packaging and well-crafted advertising campaigns that focused prospective customers on the quality of his candies.

— Consumers continue to recognize Whitman’s as having stood the test of time. American presidents offer Whitman’s Samplers to guests at the White House and those traveling on Air Force One.

Airstream

— In 1929, Wally Byam bought a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it and towed it with his car to a campsite where he erected a tent on it.

— Marion, his wife at the time, would not go camping without some sort of kitchen. Byam built a tear-drop-shaped permanent shelter on the platform that enclosed a small ice chest and kerosene stove.

— Byam published an article about “How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars.” Readers wrote asking for more detailed plans,which he sold for $1 each, earning him more than $15,000. Airstream Trailer Company went into full production in 1932. Five years later, nearly 400 companies were building trailers. Today, of those 400, only Airstream remains.

La-Z-Boy

— In 1927 cousins Edward M. Knabusch and Edwin J. Shoemaker quit their jobs and invested in the furniture business in the small town of Monroe, Michigan.

— Knabush and Shoemaker built their first factory, brick by brick, in a cornfield. One ten-horsepower engine ran the entire building. Today, the engine is still at the world headquarters of La-Z-Boy in Monroe and operates an elevator.

— The first recliner was one made of wooden slats, originally designed using orange crates. In 1929 came the first upholstered recliner. A contest was held to name the chair. Some suggestions were Sit-N-Snooze, Slack-Back and the Comfort Carrier. La-Z-Boy was chosen above all other entries.

Stetson

— In 1865, with $100, John B. Stetson rented a small room, bought the tools he needed, bought $10 worth of fur and the John B. Stetson Hat Company was born.

— Young Stetson was trained by his father, a master hatter, and applied his skills and knowledge to a trade that, at the time was not held in high regard. A hatter was seen as unreliable and/or lazy. John B. Stetson changed all that and built one of America’s most well-known and successful businesses.

— Today the Stetson hat factory in Garland, Texas is one of the largest in the country and produces a line of hats in hundreds of different styles and colors.

Wiffle Ball

— In 1953, David N. Mullany was watching his 12-year-old son and some friends playing a baseball-like game with a perforated plastic golf ball and a broomstick in their backyard. The boys were trying to sneak pitches past each other by throwing curve balls and sliders.

— Mullany set about trying to save the boys’ shoulders and elbows by creating a ball that would curve and bend on its own. His original medium was a hard plastic ball that served as packaging for Coty perfume. After having the boys experiment with various designs, Mullany hit on the Wiffle Ball.

— Baseball enthusiasts referred to strikeouts as “whiffs” and so the name. The ‘h’ was supposedly left out to save costs on advertising.

Tony Lama boots

— Tony Lama learned his first lessons in the boot industry at the age of 11. An uncle apprenticed him to a shoemaker in Syracuse, New York where he learned the leather and boot trade.

— Lama joined the U.S. Cavalry as a cobbler for the soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. Once he completed his tour of service, he set out to make the best fitting, most comfortable boot possible.

— In the first years of business, repairs were the biggest part of the trade but soon cowboys and ranchers were joining the cavalrymen at his doorstep, carrying hides and requesting custom-made boots. That first year, Tony Lama and one helper made 20 pairs of boot

— In 1961 the company moved into larger quarters and began making 750 pairs of boots a day.