Monday, February 3, 2014

Second decade… 1958 - 1967

Second decade… 1958 - 1967

The second decade would start with continued growth mostly on the lawn and garden side of the business. The lawn mower business continued to grow and with Toro, my Father had a manufacture that also offered commercial landscape equipment.  Some of our commercial customers would be the City of Bethlehem, and Bethlehem School District, Bethlehem Steel, Lehigh University and Moravian College. These customers would also purchase International Harvester Tractors to tow Toro Mowers. My Father still hadn't needed to hire a full time employee.  He would hire or borrow friends when he needed extra help.

The backhoe and heavy equipment business would start to take a back seat as my Father’s one man operation didn’t allow him to make the outside sales contacts needed to grow the construction equipment business.  The equipment business was still profitable, primarily because International Harvester did not have equipment stocking requirements.  We stocked a backhoe, Farmall Cub and the T340 tracked loader.  The T340 was International Harvesters smallest tracked loader and was my Father’s favorite toy.  It was used in all of the building projects and it was also his favorite snow plow.  When one T340 was sold other one would be ordered.  I was about 8 when I would be taught to operate the T340.  For an 8 year old using the manual steering clutches was a chore.  The T340 required two hands on the stick to make a turn. 

A T340 would find its way into the rental fleet.  Moving the machine from job to job would be a problem since we didn’t have a trailer large enough.  My Father would solve this by loading the 3 ½ ton machine in the back of our dump truck and find a bank to unload it.  One of our customers unfamiliar with the dump truck would jump the clutch and the bull dozer would be dumped onto the main street in downtown Bethlehem.  Dad would find the street dented and the loader undamaged; and would drive it back to the store.    

1958 my Father would introduce a new product to the Lehigh Valley the “Riding Lawn Tractor”. The first lawn tractors would be introduced in the Midwest and move east.  In 1958 we would acquire dealerships for Bantam and Wheel Horse.  The Bantam was a very simple tractor with no powered implements. It could push a plow or pull a mower and that was it.  The 1958 model Wheel Horse was introduced with more than a dozen attachments.  The Wheel Horse could plow snow, mow grass with 3 different mowing attachments, plow, plant, and cultivate a garden.  The Bantam tractors we sold were all traded back for Wheel Horse Tractors.  After our initial shipment of Bantams, the line would be dropped, however they would not go away.  Unsalable we would strip the traded in tractors for usable engines and tires.  The last, never sold, new Bantam Tractor is still with us.

The start of the Rental Business; my Father's interest in the rental business started in 1959 when he read an article about the rental business in Changing Times Magazine.  The consequences of this decision wouldn't be known for almost a decade, however it would take the business decades further than ether equipment sales or lawn and garden would have.

The Equipment Rental business was another new type of business which found acceptance during the post war business boom.  The popularity of renting tools and equipment started on the West Coast in the late 1940's and was moving East.   After reading the magazine article my Father would travel to Long Beach, California to learn more about the rental business at the American Rental Association's yearly Convention.

On this trip Dad would visit some California rental stores and learned the business by talking to the West Coast rental pioneers.  My Father returned with an enthusiasm for the rental business.  After returning home he did a quick inventory; the results were we had enough tools and equipment to open a well-stocked rental store.  With the equipment we owned from our building projects and the lawn and construction equipment we would only need to purchase few tools to fill out the inventory needs.  There was an old house on the business’s property, my Father would knock out some walls add some windows, and Bethlehem Rental Service would open for business in the spring of 1960.  

The next building project would be to move the Rental Department into the main building.  During the winter of 1961 an addition would be added to the main building and a connected Rental Store would open that spring.  Along with the rental equipment a paint department and some hardware and housewares were added.

The sales side the business would gradually move from lawn and construction equipment into a full service lawn and garden center with chemicals, seeds, fertilizers, tools and plants.  Another unusual product was custom mixed grass seeds.  We would have our own mixes or mix to customers specifications we could even add clover seed to the mix for customers who didn't consider clover a weed.  We had grass plots where our customers could see samples of our grass seed mixtures.  We even had a Bent Grass putting green with a Toro underground sprinkler system and an every other day mowing schedule. 

Soon after the rental business opened it was clear that the business could no longer be a one man operation.  By 1961 my Father would hire his first full time employees.  As the second decade continued more full time and part time employees would be added.  During this period my Father’s time in the shop and on the road would come to an end, as he seldom had time to leave the sales floor.

The 1960 rental store would not be recognized by today’s rental industry peers.  Many of the tools that are stocked in a general rental store today hadn't been invented in 1960.  Trailers were the most popular items we rented in the early 1960's.  We rented local and one way trailers and trucks for moving.  We would also rent whatever vehicle we had in the lot.  This would include pick-up, dump trucks, and cars.  For a time there was an early 50's Plymouth convertible that was popular, and a little English Ford sports car that could be rented for a nice day in the country. 

The insurance companies didn't completely understand what the rental business was all about; neither did the Department of Transportation.  We would just slap a dealer plate on whatever the customer wanted to rent and down the street it went.  For one rental request in the late 60's we would mount something called an Automatic Teller in place of the side doors on an Econoline Van.  The Bank that rented the van would travel around to shopping centers and give demos.  After the ATM demo the telephone company rented the same van and used it inside the Bethlehem Steel Plant.  It was returned a year later with 50 miles added to the odometer.

Hand power tools were very popular rental items at the time. Today for less than 3 hours wages a person can purchase a power circular saw, the same type of saw in 1960 would cost more than a week’s salary.  This made the Rental concept easy to understand and sell.  Another popular rental item was camping equipment.  We rented everything from sleeping bags, cots, to coolers, stoves and tents, pop-up and travel trailers.   Camping trailers would occupy our Fridays as trailers were returned Friday mornings; they were quickly cleaned, prepped and sent out Friday afternoons.  Friday afternoons were the busiest as trailer hitches and light harnesses had to be installed.  For the larger travel trailers we needed to install load distributing hitches and temporary electric brake controllers.  At one point we had a dozen camping trailers in our fleet.  One building addition would be a covered area where we could install hitches, and wire lights on two customers at once.  We even installed custom hitches and had more than 100 custom hitches in stock.  By the early 1960's International Harvester had sold off its appliance business and with the exception of the Cub Series had no other products for the homeowner market.  In 1965 International Harvester approached the Industrial Lawn & Garden Dealers like us with an ultimatum to “Get Big or Get Out”.  The $35,000.00 investment in inventory and a requirement to add a full time on the road salesman was too much for my Father and almost every other International Harvester Industrial Dealer to handle.  By the end of 1965 we would sell off the remaining inventory and return parts.

The “Get Big or Get Out” program was so popular on the “Get Out” side among dealers; International Harvester lost most of the industrial dealers.  International Harvester Industrial would be so crippled by this program that they would need to open company owned stores for industrial equipment.

By the Mid 1960's the rental business was doing well; my Father had the cash needed to expand into new product lines.  We would add some expensive new products to the rental inventory.  We would add products to our rental fleet that were not available anywhere else in the area.  Some of the new items would include diamond saws and drills, airless painting equipment, and a rough terrain high reach fork lift.  Occasionally the fork lift would be displayed with one of the employees cars lifted into the air.  We had the largest most diverse rental inventory outside of Philadelphia or New York.

The Mid 60's would also see the start of the party rental business.  Rental chairs and tables had been in the inventory since the rental business started along with a collection of green canvas tents that we used for our fair displays and open houses.  When it came down to adding china and flatware to the rental inventory we purchased heavy green edged china from a closed down restaurant.  Dad would keep an eye out for restaurant closings as the party business increased.  Washing would be in a wash tub and the unwrapped dinnerware would be stored in the warehouse.  The party business grew faster than restaurant failures, and customers started asking for matching china, glassware and flatware.  1966 would see a major investment in party.  All new gold edged china, matching flatware, and glassware was purchased.  We also added 30’ x 60' blue and white party tent, and table linens. 

Erecting the 30 x 60 tent required 3 people and in the early years this was most of the staff.  My Mother would take my siblings along with drinks and snacks for the crew.  By the time the center poles went up the neighbors had gathered.  Yes they had all seen circus and fair tents however not a blue and white stripped tent being set up in someone’s back yard.

The next step in the party business was to add dish washing and laundry facilities (sort of).  Our house was unusual in that we lived in the basement for a few years until the main floor of the house was complete.  My Father had purchased and installed a used kitchen with a dishwasher in the basement for this temporary kitchen. This basement kitchen would be used for dish washing, after busy weekends both of my Mothers dishwashers would be used to keep up with the work load.  Unable to find a quality laundry service for the linen's we would bring the linen service into our house. 

By 1967 and a few more additions the rentals, sales, parts and service departments would be handled at the same counter.  The storage garages between the rental and sales entrance was tripled in size by pushing it out over top of the shop. The original rental store was now party rental storage and display.  The new addition was used for lawn equipment display, swimming pools and supplies, and the hardware department.  The original store was for seasonal and ½ of the trailer hitch area was converted to rental equipment storage.  If this sounds complicated making sure every door was locked was even more complicated.

One of our largest investments was to purchase a Cash Register that could handle some of the accounting for the rental business.  One of my Fathers hunting buddies work for NCR.   In 1967 my Fathers friend and NCR designed a cash register that could record and subtract security deposits.  The Cash register would also allow us to separate our sales, rentals, and repairs into a 12 separate categories.  We still had to manually figure sales tax however; we could now separate rentals from sales and give our customers a printed receipt.  The cash register weighed 220 pounds and cost $3500.00.  Eventually we would have others built as we opened stores.  This was a huge expense considering the $12,000 cost to computerize 2 stores in 1990.       

During the 1960's our busy spring season started in late February when a railroad carload of peat moss (Garden Mulch) would be parked at a railroad siding about 3 miles away.  From that event it was a mad rush with everything that rolled to get the rail car unloaded as quickly as possible.  Since the 40 lb bags could be handled by a 10 year old I was included.  From then tractor trailers loaded with Scotts Lawn Products would arrive. The garden tools, lawn mowers, and tractors for the season would arrive be assembled and moved to the showroom. 

By early fall it was time to change the seasonal displays. In place of the mowers were snowmobiles, snow throwers and snow shovels.  The mower decks were removed from the lawn tractors and replaced with snow plows and snow throwers.  Bird feeders and bird food would replace fertilizer and garden chemicals.  We would display several hundred Bird Feeders as we stocked bird feeders from 50 different manufactures. The bird department was my Grandfather’s responsibility.  As soon as the bird feeders were in place we would set up the Christmas department.  In the days before Big Box retailing we were the largest Christmas Store in the Christmas City.  We even ran a lighting contest where first prize was a Toro snow thrower.  Judging was handled by family and friends piling into the Station Wagons driving around town and then comparing notes.

After Christmas the leftovers were packed away, and the rest of the Bird feeders were put on display.  As February rolled around the railroad would again call to inform us that the load of Peat Moss was rolling into the Station.

Traveling around with a chainsaw in the back of a jeep quickly became impractical as the business grew.   My Father would start setting up displays at local fairs and farm events.  At fairs we would find an unlimited number of people who wanted to touch and sit on our products.  It was easy to draw a prospect into our display when junior found a tractor seat to sit on. These country fairs were so profitable Dad would purchase his own tent and even take our marketing outside of the Lehigh Valley.

As our products changed so did the events we attended and the equipment we displayed.  For us kids we got to attend all the big events.  Depending what products we were promoting we could find an event to display it.  Agricultural Fairs, Sports Shows, Home Shows, Mall Shows, Bridal Shows.  They started to become time consuming and expensive proposition to pay for the display space set up tear down and deal with the damage.  We would cut the list of events we attended and do our own spring fair.

Every April the tents would go up next to the store and the equipment was moved under the tents.  My Mother would put weeks into preparing and freezing Barbecue from whatever animal my Father shot the previous fall.  The back page of the local paper was covered with a full page color Ad. The Factory Reps would come for the weekend and a WWII searchlight would be hired.  All of us, the cousins, and the neighborhood kids would be given grey shirts and cowboy hats and watch as all hell would break loose.

In 1966 “Ortho” our garden chemical line introduced a lawn fertilizer with a small hand held spreader called the Whirlybird.  With the purchase of a bag of fertilizer and a spreader ($20.00 for the Package) the customer would receive a Helicopter ride.  The Helicopter landed in our front yard and for 2 days was kept busy providing 3 minute rides.

Those were the good old days before lawyers, noise ordinances, and annoying neighbors.

On the sales side there was so much going on beyond the core of Lawn Equipment and Rentals but if you couldn't find it anywhere we had it or could get it.  We had 3 hardware wholesalers visit almost on a weekly basis.  The salesman would walk the isles and mark down what they thought we should have. At that point my Father or Grandfather would review the list and cross off what we didn't need.  One particular ingenious Salesman would always send items we hadn’t ordered, knowing there was a good chance that my Father would keep the merchandise rather than sending it back.

We were the area's first, or biggest for so many products, our competition was always playing catch-up. We had the best products best service and competitive pricing.  As the second decade would come to an end as a new type of retailing would take hold in the Lehigh Valley, as “Two Guys” from Harrison New Jersey would bring the concept of Big Box discount retailing to or area.

Despite the local Blue Law’s we would be open Sundays during the busy spring season.  City officials and the police would mostly ignore us because we were only open for a few hours in the afternoon and only for 2 or 3 months.  The Two Guys store would ignore the rule completely.  Paying the $25.00 fine each Sunday was insignificant compared to the amount of Sunday sales.  We would continue Sunday sales and Thursday, Friday shopping night’s through the 1970’s. 

The odd and unusual from our retail products we carried during the second decade.   Pedal Boats, Sail Boats, Boats that converted to campers, Boats that converted into car top carriers.  We were a Winchester dealer so my Father could buy guns for himself and his friends at wholesale prices.  We sold plastic pink flamingos, concrete lawn ornaments and bird baths.  Someone once stole 7’ 300lb Indian women; no one ever stole the 500lb concrete bear.  We sold and rented wrought iron lawn furniture.   We could order custom outdoor lamp posts and custom cast iron address markers for the lampposts and mail boxes.  We tried hardware and housewares we also tried above and in-ground swimming pools. We sold Fiberglass garden pools and fountains long before the water feature would become a popular landscape addition.  We sold and installed underground sprinkler systems.

We always had powered toys of some type.  After the original rental store was moved my Father started selling racing go carts there was a limited market and when the local track closed that line was dropped. During the 1960's kids would use old lawn mower engines to power homemade Go Carts and Mini Bikes this spawned a market for clutches, chains, tires, and other parts we also sold Mini Bike frames and complete Mini Bikes. We also sold the little Model T's the parading Shriner's refer to as Tin Lizzies.  My very first job at 7 or 8 years old in the business would be to remove engines from old reel mowers get them running and sell them to the neighborhood kids.  

Mini bike supplies made our store a popular spot for the kids, day and night.  If a customer’s mower was mistakenly left out over night the engine would disappear by morning.  Another powered toy we introduced to market was Snowmobiles.  The first snow machines were 20 mph 700 lb. monsters made by a company called Foxtrac.  Not only did we bring the first Snowmobiles to the Lehigh Valley we were one of the first Snowmobile Dealers in the Mid-Atlantic region.  When our snowmobiles were displayed outside people would pull off the road to see one or sit on it and have a picture taken.  When it snowed the grass demo yard would be the snowmobile demo yard.  Mostly it was a chance for a passerby to use the demo as only something to brag about.

Our first snowmobile would find its way to the front page of the local paper.  The snowmobiles would attract attention when we replaced the skis with wheels and showed it off at our Spring Fair.  That first snowmobile would get plenty of attention but never find a home. It was rented a few times and has been sitting in a shed since the early 1970’s.  Our next brand would be Ski-doo, then AMF Ski Daddlier, Wheel Horse, Ariens and a few others until we acquired a Polaris Dealership in 1971

1965 Foxtrac Snowmobile

By the late 1960's the Wild West of retailing was just about over.  My Father would be denied the permit needed to add the umpteenth addition to the store.  By 1967 the store had 3 front doors on 3 different levels, 3 side doors, at least 10 garage doors not counting the huge 3 car garage at the house that was also used for storage.  Our building had 2 separate attics and 2 levels of basements. It was heated with 3 oil burners and was powered with one main overworked fuse box. Somewhere among the 6 levels and 7 interior doors was one toilet and a sink.

By the mid 1960's my Father was planning to open a second store.  Dad found a suitable location had it rezoned and acquired the permits.  He would have the steel delivered and start excavating before all the appeals were exhausted.  Mid foundation the neighbors appealed the rezoning and this would stop the project for over a year.  


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