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Did traveling salesmen help create small city niches?
Fort Wayne, Warsaw, and Elkhart, Indiana all have a traveling salesman at the genesis of their unique niches
I’m increasingly interested in how small cities have historically found an economic identity.
I’m not sure exactly what there is to learn from these histories, but I feel like they probably have something useful to say. So I’m going to start researching and sharing these stories and my thoughts along the way.
I’m starting with three stories in Northern Indiana and a nascent thesis of the importance of the “traveling salesman” of the late 1800s and early 1900s on the start of weird small city niches.
In the late 1890s, a traveling pharmaceutical salesman by the name of Revra DePuy passed through the small town of Warsaw, IN. He had a background in chemistry, already had some interesting inventions around sugar-coated pills, and found himself surrounded by farm country.
After doing his sales calls with local doctors, he noticed a trend: there were a lot of lower leg injuries from people who worked on the farms. The state of the art for setting these broken bones was using barrel staves. However, these had an issue - they often splintered, causing cuts, and eventually bad infections.
DePuy took this as an opportunity and developed the first fiber splint. At 32 years old, he put down roots, with the first facility of DuPuy Manufacturing located inside the Hotel Hays.
Years later he hired his first salesman, a man by the name of John Zimmer, who would go on to found Zimmer. Over a 100 years later, many more orthopedic firms have been formed and Warsaw is informally known as the orthopedic capital of the world, making up close to a third of the global $40B+ industry.
Not long after DePuy got things started in Warsaw, a man named Wilbur Wynant showed up in the town of Fort Wayne, just 40 miles down the road. Wyant quickly convinced a few local businessmen to join him in creating the Fraternal Assurance Society of America, a early pre-cursor to the life insurance products we know today.
However, the history of past success with the model he peddled to these local partners soon became more suspect, and within two years Wynant was nowhere to be found in town. It quickly became obvious that this had been a form of a pyramid scheme and the local partners and community were left holding the bag.
Afraid of the damage to their customers (and reputations), the local businessmen decided to re-organize the entity into the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, named after President Abraham Lincoln, to convey a commitment to honesty and integrity (the firm got permission from the President’s only surviving son at the time, Robert, to use his likeness for the company).
Lincoln quickly became known for their management and practices during a soon-to-follow regulatory crackdown, were early to use actuarial science in the 1910s, and became the basis for what is now known as the Lincoln Financial Group, a company with over $300B in assets today.
From this inauspicious start grew an entire industry of specialty insurance providers that still exists in Fort Wayne today.
Fast forward through World War I, the Roaring ‘20s, and the start of the Great Depression and travel about 75 miles to the northwest to the town of Mishawaka. There a man named Milo Miller, a painter by trade, was making it through the Depression as a traveling salesman for a product he had invented to seal the canvas tops of automobiles.
There was only one problem with the gig - it required him to spend a lot of time away from the family. So drawing on a nascent but emerging trend of people building travel trailers for their own recreational use, he built a trailer to tow along that allowed his family to join him on the road. It didn’t take but the first stop on his trip for someone to offer to buy what he had built. So he sold it, on the spot built a second, and sold that one too.
He moved back to Mishawaka to go all-in on the idea. His operations and sales grew and he eventually re-located to Elkhart. No long after showing off his trailers at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, he sold his young company to Wilbur Schult. This kicked off a flurry of new trailer companies in the region, quickly an entire industry, and 90+ years later, Elkhart produces north of 65% of $45B+ RV market worldwide.
Each of these stories has many layers and factors that ended in the establishment of entire industries in these small cities. But it’s hard not to notice the traveling salesmen at the center of all of them. One solved a problem he noticed, one created a problem for others to solve, and one solved a problem of his own.
Traveling has always been valued because of the exposure it creates to new people and ideas. As more of our work lives moves to the internet, I wonder what would happen if small cities were able to attract just a few more entrepreneurial travelers.
The collisions of people, problems, and places might lead to another wave of unique small city industries.
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Revra DePuy and the Orthopedics Business, Kilmer House
Welcome to Warsaw: Indiana’s Orthopedics Capital of the World, Today’s Machining World
Lincoln National Corporation History, International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 25. via Funding Universe
History of Lincoln Financial, Lincoln Financial Group
Insurance Scandal Post, Fort Wayne History Center
The Dumb Things Sold…Just Like That, Al Hesselbart
The History Behind Elkhart County’s Title as RV Capital of the World, My Indiana Home
Hoosier State History: How Indiana Became the RV Capital of the World, Yesterday’s America