History of the Northwestern Corporation

Chapter 1: Emerson A. Bolen

The late Emerson A. Bolen, who founded Northwestern, was one of those imaginative entrepreneurs whose genius preceded the big corporation, the corps of professional managers, and the idea of the “team” which professional managements fostered. Born in Newark, Ohio, Bolen moved his family to Marion, Indiana, graduated from public schools without particularly distinguishing himself, and became a traveling salesman.

At this he was good. So good that in his early 20’s he packed his satchel and a sample case and sailed off to South Africa as the sole representative of the Fireless Cooker Company and of a firm which manufactured illustrated blackboards. In later years his family like to josh “that dad made his living selling fireless cookers to cannibals.” Whoever his customers were Bolen appears to have been quite successful.

He had his ups and downs, of course. He got himself drafted briefly to serve in the British Army during those desperate days of the Boer War despite his protest that the British could not draft an American citizen. When he wasn’t selling cookers and blackboards he used his spare time as a volunteer teacher in a mission school. He might have well stayed in South Africa, except his heart was back home in Marion and belonged to a young lady named Jenny Fullhart.

After three years in South Africa Bolen started for home. He stopped off in London to convert his currency into gold and wait for a ship. Bolen’s absent-mindedness, a trait still remembered around Northwestern and the town of Morris, almost cost him his three years’ savings. While waiting for his ship Bolen wrote his friends at home to tell them of his plans for returning. The letters finished, he set out to find the London Post Office. As always, he carried all his gold with him.

Having posted the letters and with hours of waiting still ahead, Bolen decided to see London on foot. Later that day, patting his pockets, he discovered his gold was missing. Then he remembered he had laid the gold down on one of the high tables in the post office lobby while he fixed stamps to the envelopes. He rushed back to the post office certain he was wiped out. But his good fortune held. As he hurried in to the lobby a postal clerk came along to meet him. “We know what you’re after” the clerk said as he handed over the gold.

Back in Marion, Emerson Bolen promptly married his young sweetheart. In time the Bolen’s had three children: Marjorie, Charline, and Waldo.

Chapter 2: Kitchen Matches

At the turn of the century, the gentlemen, young and old, of Marion, Indiana were free and easy with kitchen matches in the town saloons. They came to put their feet on the brass rails, lean an elbow on the bar and drink a nickel stein of the frothy stuff. Before they left they reached out for a generous helping of kitchen matches which were a staple item on every well stocked bar. Unfortunately for the saloon keepers, those free fistfuls of matches cut deeply into profits.

Still and all, if the gentlemen of Marion had been a bit easier on the kitchen match supplies, the Northwestern Corporation would not be in its 88th year of production.

Like the other gentlemen of Marion, Emerson Bolen had his favorite places to stop for a glass of nickel beer. On one of these stops, the problem of the free loaders and the kitchen matches changed his life. Bolen stood at the bar patiently listening to a saloon keeper friend describing how the fistfuls of free matches were eating away at his profits. Why not, thought Bolen, find some way of providing free matches and yet gracefully keep the customers from stuffing their pockets?

Chapter 3: The Yankee

Out of this thinking came a small, bar top device which Bolen called the Yankee. You opened the top of the Yankee and loaded it with 100 or so kitchen matches. Then the top was locked back on. When you pushed down a lever about an inch of matchstick popped out of an opening in the top. You grasped the matchstick and pulled, and as you pulled the match head struck itself against an abrasive and emerged lighted, ready for use. The end of the lever which actuated the device also contained a cutter to nip off the end of your cigar.

Bolen kept his device to himself. He took the train to Chicago to find someone who would manufacture the Yankee. In Chicago he contacted the Coleman Hardware Company, which had a foundry in Morris, about 654 miles southwest of the city. The Coleman people suggested that Bolen take his model and drawings down to Morris to see the works manager of their foundry. This Bolen promptly did.

When a number of cast iron samples had been produced, Bolen set out to test the sales reception it would have. Morris, the seat of prosperous Grundy County, sits on the banks of the Illinois River. Through the town runs the old Illinois-Michigan canal, a busy waterway until 1933 when the river itself was opened to shippers. Like most small river towns Morris was populated by saloons: 23 all told in the year 1909 when Bolen’s Yankee was ready for production.

Bolen’s sales approach was simple and right down to closing the sale, wordless. He simply ticked the Yankee under his arm, marched into a saloon, and ordered a beer. As the beer was being delivered, he pushed down the handle of the Yankee, pulled out a lighted math and lit a cigar. When the saloon keeper expressed amazement at the device, Bolen would repeat the performance, again without words. By this time the Yankee usually sold itself. Within days, 21 of the saloons in Morris had purchased the Yankee and the word was out around town that young Bolen had hold of a good thing.

Chapter 4: The Northwestern Novelty Company

At this point Bolen was approached by Earl D. Fuller and Frank H. Hayes. Fuller, a recent college graduate, was looking for some business to get into. Hayes, an attorney newly arrived in Morris, had some money to invest. On August 12, 1909, the three formed the Northwestern Novelty Company with $3000 capital. Fuller became active in the business while Hayes, who later gained prominence as a circuit court judge, was a director.

Northwestern sold the Yankee through specialty salesmen and grocery tobacco wholesalers. The retail price was $2, and the company minute books disclosed it cost exactly $1 to produce. Business boomed. One entry in the original company minute book contains the following resolution: “In the event that the regular 10% dividend is not declared at the monthly meeting, an explanation shall be given.”

In the first nine months Northwestern Novelty Company built and sold about 100,000 of the Yankee. The handwriting was on the wall: in 1910 the safety match took the country by storm and the conveniently free kitchen math passed into history.

Determined not to let the trend get away from him, Bolen planned to capture his share of the safety match business. In 1911 he brought out a penny match box vending machine the first in a long line of coin activated silent salesmen the company was to produce. The box match vender listed at $2.70, and Waldo Bolen figured the company sold half a million of them before the model was discontinued.

Chapter 5: Diversification

Pleased with the success of the box match vender, Bolen, who had no formal training in engineering or design, turned his energies to other vending machines. In 1912 Northwestern brought out its first postage stamp vending machine. It was not the first stamp vender. Shermack in Detroit built one several years earlier. The Northwestern stamp machine had a glass front and back which allowed the customers to see the rolls of postage stamps inside. It offered two choices, four penny stamps or two 2-cent stamps for a nickel. “They were getting into high priced things now,” Waldo Bolen observed. The first stamp machine sold for $8.

In the 1911-1913 period Northwestern got into vending in a big way. It brought out a package chewing gum vender, a gumball vender and a machine to sell rolls of mints. It augmented its vending line with a sturdy cigar box lid holder. At least one was still in use in 1959 at the cigar counter in Chicago’s staid old Union League Club!

In 1912 the company moved from a store building in the business district of Morris to a spanking new manufacturing plant out on Armstrong Street. The building had been built by the Morris Industrial Association in an effort to attract industry to the farming community. “But the industry they brought into the plant folded before it started,” Waldo Bolen said, “so they had to pick up an orphan.” From 1912 to 1936, Northwestern occupied only half the plan – the other half was used for paper storage by a local paper mill. In 1936 Northwestern bought the other half of the plant and 10 years later built an addition, bringing its total square footage to 65,000.

World War I was a difficult time for the young Northwestern organization. Although materials were not on priority restrictions, as they were in WWII, shipping finished machines and transporting raw materials was extremely difficult. One of Waldo Bolen Sr.’s earliest recollections of his days at Northwestern revolves around the year 1919 when he was 13 years old. “I had a Model T which I bought from Pete Truntland when he went off to war. And I used to haul our nut machine castings from Morris up to Chicago to be porcelined and then bring the porcelined castings back down to the plant.”

Chapter 6: Ice Cream

Having survived the war and the inflationary period which accompanied its ending, Emerson Bolen saw a great opportunity to expand his business in 1922. An inventor had brought Bolen a model of a machine to automatically make chocolate coated ice cream bars. Bolen perfected the model and readied it for production. But the company’s resources were insufficient to put the machine on the market. As a result, in 1922, Northwestern Novelty Company changed its name to The Northwestern Corporation and issued stock to 80 investors, most of them local citizens.

The ice cream bar machine sold well to Eskimo Pie Company and to JoLo (which makes popsicles). Waldo Bolen Sr. figured that by 1945, when Northwestern sold the device to the Mojonnier Company in Chicago, about one out of three U.S. ice cream companies had purchased one of the machines.

“We decided to get out of this phase of the business for two reasons,” Waldo said. We felt that we’d do better concentrating on the vending machine business. And then, too, the larger ice cream companies had by then adopted the brine tank (molded) rather than mechanical method of making ice cream bars.”

Chapter 7: Waldo Bolen

Emerson Bolen called his son into the business in 1927 when Earl Fuller, then just 40, died suddenly of pneumonia. Waldo Bolen was a senior at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He started at the University of Colorado, but transferred to Milwaukee because he wanted to start a route of ten-cent packaged nut vending machines and he needed a big city location.

“I probably would have gone on into law,” Waldo Bolen said. Instead he sold his fledgling nut operation to three Marquette students (“they used to see me counting all those coins and must have thought it was a good business”) and came home to Morris to assume the office duties at Northwestern.

One year later, in 1928, Waldo Bolen married Ellen Keating of Pueblo, Colorado. They met while they both studied at Colorado College. They had two sons, W.E. Bolen Jr. and Richard K. Bolen. In January 1934, Emerson Bolen stepped out of the presidency and his son became president. In December of that year, while on a business trip to Toronto, Canada, Emerson Bolen suffered a stroke which left him an invalid. The elder Bolen lived until 1942 and watched his oldest son take a good firm grip of the reins at Northwestern.

Chapter 8: New Horizons in Bulk Vending

Between Earl Fuller’s death in 1927 and the introduction of the Penny Merchandiser in 1931, the company completely reversed its approach to the vending market. Like some other pioneers in vending, Earl Fuller apparently lacked real confidence in the future of automatic selling. For one thing, he did not believe that Northwestern should build the kind of equipment that would be purchased by the operating companies which were then springing up around the country. Fuller wanted Northwestern to build machines to sell direct to his retailers, and he had his way. His policies were continued until the great depression. “When the depression came along,” Waldo Bolen observed, “you just had no chance to sell a vending machine to a retailer when the retailer couldn’t even pay his utility bill. So we decided to build our machines for operators.”

Accordingly, in 1931, the company brought out its Penny Merchandiser, a revolutionary machine for its day, and set about building up a network of distributors who could seek out and sell established and potential vending operators. The Penny Merchandiser was a considerable step forward in bulk vending wince it was designed to sell many kinds of products in addition to gum balls and nuts. This was accomplished by developing a flexible measuring device which permitted the vending of soft and irregular shaped objects. What the Penny Merchandiser did was to expand bulk vending’s horizon. Now in our 88th year, we are still selling to some of the same operators, and scores of new ones. Northwestern has distributorships around the globe, faring extremely well in international markets.

Chapter 9: Landmark Machines

Model 80

It would be impossible to list here all the various models and types of merchandising machines Northwestern produced. Some were real landmarks in the development of the company. In 1933, Northwestern brought out its Model 33 (the company has a penchant for naming its machines after the year in which they are introduced) and the Model 33 Junior, a small peanut vender which Northwestern sold by the thousands to automatic Canteen.

The Deluxe (1936) offered the first real protection against slugs; the Triselector (1936) had three separate compartments; the Model 49 (1949) gave customers a fast, full-for-empty service routine; the Golden 59 marked Northwestern’s 50th anniversary; the Model 60, an improved version of the 59, is still considered the workhorse of the industry and spawned the Model Super 60 (late 60’s) and the lovable Fathead in 1996.

When the space age took hold of the country in the early 60’s Northwestern launched its Moon Rocket, shaped like a space vehicle and complete with countdown lights and a miniature rocket launching.

In 1973 Northwestern’s first talking vender, Mouthy Marvin, chatted his way into the market. The Model 80(designed in 1979) used Northwestern engineering and lots of operator input to produce a large capacity machine that was the talk of the 1979 NBVA convention and is still one of automatic merchandising’s biggest sellers.

The Triple Play (1990), surely the most elegant multi-merchandise machine in the industry, was designed with the thought of opening up new and more upscale markets, and the Pro Bowl (1995) was Northwestern’s entry into the giant gumball machine market.

On a few occasions, the company has even ventured out of the bulk and stamp vending field. Once it built a two selection Hershey candy bar vending machine, and then a big capacity, multi selection bar candy vender (The Sweet 16). During WWII and again in the Korean War, the company went into the business of making shell cases. Northwestern was given the Army-Navy E award on three separate occasions.

Innovation after innovation, Northwestern never ceases to improve quality and create new machines, stands and accessories for a constantly growing market.

Chapter 10: Disaster

Northwestern entered the sixties just like the country did, with a turbulent beginning. In the early morning hours of April 1960 a fire started in the factory. By the time employees arrived at the plant, Northwestern was ablaze. When it was over the company was leveled, except for the warehouse and 7000 machines therein. Overnight a successful business was gone.

Grief stricken at first, Waldo Bolen Sr. was determined. His courage and fight quickly grew and the rebirth of Northwestern was underway. In July production began in what was previously the warehouse and by December of that year Northwestern was back in operating order.

Sadly, Waldo Bolen Sr. did not live to see the completion of his dream. In October 1960 he died, and his eldest son, W.E. “Pat” Bolen Jr. stepped into the presidency.

Chapter 11: Pat and Richard Bolen

Pat had come to Northwestern in 1957, after graduating from the University of Arizona. He was married and had three sons. Northwestern flourished in the sixties and the bulk vending industry continued to grow.

In 1979, Richard K. Bolen, a man of many talents (father, published author, athlete and artist), became President of Northwestern and W.E. Bolen Jr. took the position of Vice President. Richard, an engineering graduate from Stanford, was instrumental in designing and improving Northwestern equipment over the years, and was now ready to pursue a more visible role in the company.

Chapter 12: Northwestern Today

Today business goes on as usual. Northwestern employees are dedicated and many have worked here for most of their adult lives. That in itself says something about the company that Emerson Bolen founded in 1909 and continues to thrive and grow with the third generation of Bolens at the helm.

Emerson would have taken great pride in the knowledge that ingenuity and hard work have made Northwestern the foremost producer of bulk vending equipment in the world.

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