The Ozarks Herbalist column, for The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine.
When I was in grade school my friends were always telling me how lucky I was that my parents owned a grocery store. “You can eat all the candy you want!” one said. “I’d live on soda pop and peanuts every day,” said another.
The trouble was, I didn’t actually like soda pop, or simply, “pop” as everyone called. I’d rather have water to drink, or chocolate milk. And while I liked the overall idea of candy, one bite of a candy bar and I was no longer interested. Ice cream cones from the ice cream display, or slices of sharp cheddar cheese from the big cheese wheel in the back room - now that was another thing! But candy simply didn’t interest me.
Sometime in the 5th grade it dawned on me that I was missing an opportunity. Our school didn’t have vending machines like schools do today and many of my classmates were from rural areas, which meant they couldn’t easily stop at a store to buy snacks for the school day. So my first entry into the free enterprise system occurred to me on the school bus one day. I saw the connection between supply and demand and I realized I was the person to connect the two.
The candy called Firestix had just entered the market about 1957, in our store at least. It’s a candy that apparently is no longer available, not in the original form. The candy was about the size of a piece of taffy, wrapped in clear cellophane. It came one hundred pieces to a box, in a handy display and sold for a penny a piece.
I asked my father what his cost of a box of Firestix was and he told me it was sixty cents. Would he sell me a box for me to resell at school? He said he would and so the next day I set off to school with my first box of candy.
I was a shy kid and I’m not sure how I worked up the courage to start selling the candy, but I did. It didn’t take long before word got around on the bus that I was selling Firestix and since it was so cheap, my bus mates could nearly all afford the candy. (Later I learned that some of my classmates searched for pennies on the school ground, a few admitted to “borrowing” pennies from the bottoms of their mothers purses). The added bonus was, Firestix, as predicted by the name, was quite hot; it was made with a good dose of hot cinnamon oil. People in our community didn’t eat hot things, no hot peppers, no hot sauce - no one I knew had ever heard of a jalapeno pepper back then - so the taste was unusual enough it became a challenge for the boys to eat the sweet-hot confection. That first day I sold sixty-two pieces of my candy stash, enough to pay my father the sixty cents I owed him.
Soon kids were hunting me up on the playground at recess. “Do you have more Firestix?” they’d ask. When the bell first rang for recess, classmates would crowd around my desk where I’d set up shop with my box of candy and most days I’d sell the entire 100 pieces in the box before I got back home in the evening.
I quickly learned my classmates tired of the same candy each day and so I began varying the selections. Applestix soon appeared on the market and I began taking those to school. Sales were best when I mixed a box with Firestix, Sour Applestix, Grapestix and Butterstix flavors. At the high point of my enterprise, I was selling 500 pieces of candy a week and my father was reordering at twice the rate he had earlier. He didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t making any profit for his efforts but appeared to enjoy the fact I was in the candy business.
The downside and ultimate demise of my candy enterprise was the candy’s rappers. All of the candies were wrapped in clear cellophane, which on the school ground made no noticeable noise. But when stealthily taken out of a pocket during class and unwrapped, made a telltale noise much like the sound of a dry oak leaf being crumbled next to a microphone. That noise irritated the teachers and soon I began to get complaints. The principal put out a school-wide warning to all eight grades in our building that there was to be no candy eating during class.
The candy unwrapping noise subsided somewhat. Classmates soon learned to unwrap their candy at recess and keep it in their pockets, although the added lint and debris made the candy less than satisfying. The idea was to pop the candy into their mouths when the teacher wasn’t looking. But the children in the younger grades couldn’t resist. Knowing that within easy reach was a tasty piece of candy was a temptation too overpowering to be resisted. Some tried to very, very slowly unwrap their candy, which only drew more attention to the process. Others tried to muffle the noise inside their desks. None of those methods worked and within days, the principal came to me and said was forbidding all future sales of candy at school.
The candy business had been good. Since I had no inclination to eat the profits in candy, I had been pocketing approximately two dollars a week. My weekly earnings went into a jar in my room and eventually joined the profits from picking up and selling pecans in the fall and mowing lawns. I bought my first battery-powered transistor radio for $68 with the money I earned. I carried my portable radio with me everywhere I went after school, and it was my first connection to the world beyond my community. The radio added lots more to my life than any amount of candy I could have eaten, but more importantly it gave me my first glimpse into how small businesses operated.
Read more of Jim’s stories in his blogs: jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com, herboftheyear.blogspot.com and ozarksgardening.blogspot.com.