Kool-Aid inventor can inspire youth


The Leadership Marion County program is taking a year off to regroup and it’s been productive as the board continues to press on with plans for the 2013 class.

As in previous years, the board is looking at city and county government, exploring what makes our communities unique and even a few new and exciting surprises.

While working on our activities, though, I became aware of an interesting entrepreneurship program developed by the Nebraska Department of Educa­tion and designed specifically for young people.

What caught my attention was the urgency and economic challenges that face our youth in the 21st Century.

Most of us know how important it is in these trying times to keep the momentum going when it comes to economic viability in our communities and our personal lives.

What impressed me, too, was the way the information was presented by offering a wide range of fun, unique projects.

In the first unit, “Investigat­ing the Entrepreneurship Profile,” participants learn about people who became successful by taking a risk to start and run a new business.

Ever heard of Edwin Perkins? He was an entrepreneur who invented Kool-Aid. According to the story, Perkins was born Jan. 8, 1889, in Lewis, Iowa. Not long after his birth, he and his family moved to a farm in Furnas County, Neb., and later to Hendley, Neb.

At 12, he started making extracts and medicines using instructions from a mail-ordered product advertised as, “Be a Manufacturer—Mixer’s Guide Tells How—Write Today.”

Dear to my heart was that Perkins was also in the newspaper business. Following high school, he did printing, pushed a weekly paper and set up a mail-order business to sell products that he made from his chemical set. Some of his merchandise included perfumes and bluing, used to whiten laundry and he sold these things under the name, Perkins Product Co.

Another item he invented and marketed was “Nix-O-Tine Tobacco Remedy,” which was popular with World War I vets who had picked up the tobacco habit during the war and were trying to quit.

The biographical information about Perkins stated he realized he would need to be closer to railroads and highways to distribute his products, so in 1920 he moved to Hastings with that goal in mind.

Once he started manufacturing and distributing his goods, he went on to sell more than 125 other items ranging from face creams to lotions, medicines, salves and soaps to food flavorings, jelly-making products and fruit drink concentrates.

His company got so big he began recruiting for salespeople and managers who could door-to-door with his products. As an incentive, Perkins offered new automobiles to his executives.

His most popular product, though, wouldn’t be invented until 1927 and it didn’t start out as Kool-Aid.

Perkins’ first attempt was called Fruit Smack, which was a 4-ounce liquid fruit-flavored concentrate that could make a pitcher of fruit drink for pennies.

But Perkins realized there were a couple of problems with Fruit Smack. One is that it was marketed in glass containers, making it susceptible to breakage. The other was the expense in shipping.

His solution was to invent Kool-Aid. It was a powder, light weight, packaged in envelopes and he sold it in grocery stores rather than door-to-door.

It’s been so long since I had Kool-Aid I can’t remember the flavors, but in those early years, there were only six flavors—raspberry, cherry, grape, lemon, orange and root beer.

After figuring out how to resolve the high shipping costs and the breakable glass container, Perkins discovered a problem with his packaging. Turned out one type of packaging left black, tarry material in the Kool-Aid powder and the other didn’t seal properly. He came up with a waxed paper liner and an outer envelope in bright colors that he designed and printed himself.

Kool-Aid ended up being the first powdered soft drink mix sold nationally in stores. Within four years, Kool-Aid was so popular, Perkins Products Co. quit selling all of its other products and concentrated on his soft drink mix.

The Kool-Aid story doesn’t end there. His product continued to grow and the company moved to Chicago. Later it was bought by General Mills.

Perkins died in 1961 in Rochester, Minn., and is buried in Hastings, where Kool-Aid was invented. It shouldn’t be surprising that Kool-Aid is Nebraska’s official soft drink.

Of course, this is only one of many entrepreneur success stories, but I thought it was special because I grew up drinking pitchers full of Kool-Aid during the hot summer days.

Speaking of pitchers, another entrepreneur, Marvin Potts, a New York ad agency art director, came up with the smiling Kool-Aid pitcher. The “Kool-Aid Man” was introduced in 1975 by adding arms and legs to “Pitcher Man.”

When I look around, I see a lot of entrepreneurs right here in Marion County—people who started a business against all odds, provided a service or simply came up with a better idea to an old problem.

With school out for several more weeks, I think this would be a great opportunity for young people to take a look around, talk to successful people and consider reading more about what makes a person a successful entrepreneur.

How do you think these people got started? When looking at a local business, what need is being achieved? If a business fails, why did that happen?

I believe we all have it within us to be an entrepreneur. After all, who among us didn’t think about or even manage our own lemonade stand at one time or another?

One thing I try to remember each day is that life is not about the destination because we all know where that leads, but rather it’s about the journey.

Happy trails!


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