By Tom Parker
To hear Ron Wilson tell it, Linda Katz’s entry into one of the most improbable and outlandish business schemes in the annals of entrepreneurship started out as a joke.
Like many families in rural areas, hers had scattered across the nation in pursuit of more lucrative opportunities. Some lived nearby and some lived far away, and those that lived nearby felt a sort of aggrieved entitlement for more contact with those who had abandoned the nest, so to speak. To rectify that forlorn situation, Katz decided to design a creative, fun, and not boring website for family members to keep in touch.
This was in 1994, when connecting to the Internet was as slow as drying paint. Nevertheless, Katz rounded up a gaggle of nieces and nephews, several pieces of construction equipment and enough hard hats to go around, and together they staged the annual harvest of organically-grown tumbleweeds at the altogether imaginary but weirdly plausible Prairie Tumbleweed Farm.
The website was a tremendous success. Not only did the digitally-reunited family get a good laugh out of it, but orders for tumbleweeds started pouring in.
“This thing took off,” Wilson said. “It got so goofy that they needed a Japanese translation for the website. People Magazine did a story on it.” Her tumbleweeds, guaranteed to tumble and sold in small, medium or large, have been shipped to buyers in Europe, Singapore, Sweden and Japan.
Wilson shared Katz’s story along with others he had compiled in “Tumbleweed Tales of Rural Kansas,” presented during the Kansas Farmers Union’s annual convention held late November at Prairie Band Casino and Resort in Mayetta. The biographies were adapted from “Kansas Profile,” a weekly radio program and news column about small town Kansas entrepreneurs and community leaders. He is director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University in Manhattan, and was included in 50 Kansans You Should Know by Ingram’s Magazine.
Katz’s story illustrated the most significant change he had seen since starting the profiles—technology. “Today, a rural entrepreneur can live in a rural setting in small town Kansas, and as long as there’s broadband access, they can connect with customers at the touch of a button,” he said. “I’m amazed at the number of businesses that I find in rural Kansas who are selling widgets across the nation and beyond, thanks to the power of technology. If we use the technology wisely, that creates extra opportunities in rural Kansas, and we can enjoy the high quality of life we have here in our rural communities.”
Katz, Wilson said, was a prime example of what happens when rural resilience meets entrepreneurial spirit. These ruralpreneurs—his term—brought to mind the tumbleweeds that blow across western Kansas, or, for that matter, tumbleweeds snatched from barbed wire fences, carefully boxed and drop shipped to foreign lands.
“They never know where they’ll end up,” he said. “Not everything they try works out, but through it all they’re resilient. These are small town people doing good things.”
When he launched the radio program and news column in 1992, he adopted a catchphrase that sums up each short piece. “Now, that’s rural” became his signature slogan, the distillation of wide open spaces, innovative vision and raw determination.
Huck Boyd was one such person. Wilson was introduced to Boyd while working as a legislative assistant to Senator Nancy Kassebaum. Boyd was there to convince the Senate of the necessity of saving the Rock Island Railroad service through northwestern Kansas. In deference to Boyd, Kassebaum had convened a meeting with rail experts, all of whom unanimously declared the deal DOA.
However experienced in their own respective fields, however, they had no idea who they were up against. Boyd was there to negotiate a deal, and the word no was excluded from the vocabulary. When informed that his plan violated the state constitution, he told them to amend it.
“Today, the Kyle Railroad operates on that track,” Wilson said. “Boyd was one amazing Kansan who believed in the value of rural Kansas.”
That service to rural Kansas defines the essence of successful rural entrepreneurs, he said.
Take Don Landoll, for example. Landoll’s goal to become an aviator never cleared the runway. He graduated from high school on a Friday, reported to the Air Force on Saturday, flunked his physical exam on Sunday, and was back in Marysville on Monday. What began as a welding shop with two other men now employs more than 700 people from 43 different ZIP codes. And when the company reached a certain level, Wilson said, the company purchased a corporate jet for Landoll to fly.
Pack St. Clair’s goal of building boats ran aground at his first boat show in Chicago. Though he failed to sell a single boat, he shrewdly noticed that rather than competing on quality, everyone competed on price. What if he were to build the Cadillac of boats, targeting the upscale end of the marketplace? Fifty years after returning to rural Kansas, St. Clair had an answer to that. Cobalt Boats, with 24 models in its product line and 132 dealers spanning the globe, generated $140 million in net sales in 2017. “Folks,” Wilson said, “you cannot get much further from the ocean than Neodesha, Kansas.”
Then there was Roger Baker and Joe Works. The 1980s had left the rural economy in tatters and Baker and Works no choice but to seek supplemental income at a welding shop. During break they overheard a farmer griping about a problem with a gooseneck trailer hitch. There had to be a better way, they decided, and in short order not only created a new design that solved the problem, it revolutionized the industry. Today, nearly every gooseneck manufacturer uses their design for the mounting system. B&W Trailer Hitch employs 180 people at its Humboldt facility.
Had it ended there, it would have been just one more success story for Kansas Profile. Remarkable, yes, but typical. There was a part two to this story, however, that was unlike anything Wilson had done.
The economy tanked again in 2000. Orders dried up, phones went silent. With his workforce idled, Works was told by his administrative team that his only option was to lay off his crew. To buy time, he promised to draft a transition package within a few days.
The plan he submitted was as unlikely to succeed as selling tumbleweeds to the Japanese. Instead of laying off employees, they would be sent into Humboldt for community service—at the company’s expense. They employees painted houses and stores, cleaned ballfields, repaired the infrastructure, anything to improve the community. It was crazy risky, but the goodwill it generated among the employees and the residents paid off in spades when the economy recovered and orders started rolling back in.
“The message I took from that was that in rural Kansas, if you take care of your community, your community will take care of you,” Wilson said.
Other notable Kansans included in his presentation included Marci Penner, executor director of the Kansas Foundation and Lee Reeve, Reeve Cattle Co..
Ron Wilson’s career could have been very different than the one he’s now known for. He began a political position as a legislative assistant to Senator Nancy Kassebaum in Washington, D.C. before advancing to a staff member for the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. After a stint as vice president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, he returned to Kansas to become vice president of the Farm Credit Bank of Wichita. In 1990 he became director of the Huck Boyd Institute, where for 16 years he has shared his short but succinct tumbleweed tales of more than 1,000 outstanding rural Kansans. His stories have built pride in rural Kansas by showing what’s possible when rural meets vision.
Now, that’s rural.