Joseph Ray "J.R." Watkins
Founder of Watkins Products, Winona, MN
The following biography is included only to dispel the notion that J. R. Watkins, founder of Watkins Products of Winona, MN, is a descendant of James and Anne White Watkins as has been documented in our family genealogy for many years. This document is to "set the record straight" on this matter.
Joseph Ray Watkins, of Winona, comes from a family of Welsh descent which has lived in America for more than two hundred years. The great-grandfather, Tobias Watkins, was born in New Jersey in the early part of the Eighteenth Century, and during the Revolutlonary War took contracts for furnishing beef to the army.
James Watkins, the grandfather of the subject of this sketch, was also a native of New Jersey. In 1800 he made the journey westward with an ox-team, crossed the mountains of Pennsylvania, and became one of those sturdy pioneers who opened up the great State of Ohio. He was one of the first settlers in the western part of the State, and located on what was known as the Sim's Purchase, at a point then called Fort Washington, where the city of Cincinnati now stands. He took an active part in the development of that region. By trade he was a blacksmith, and brought from New Jersey the first nail cutting machine taken west of the Allegheny mountains in Pennsylvania. The anvil of James Watkins is still in the family, and will behanded down to future generations.
J. R. Watkins was born at Cincinnati, August 21, 1840, the son of the Rev. Benjamin Utter and Sophronia (Keeler) Watkins. The father continued his ministerial life in Ohio until 1862, when he came to Minnesota, where he resided nearly twenty years. He then moved to the State of Missouri. where he died. The mother was born on the shore of Lake Champlain, and came of a family that settled in the northern part of the Empire State during pioneer days.
The subject of this sketch was reared in the State of his nativity and was educated at College Hill, Ohio. In 1862 he accompanied his father's family to Minnesota. and became a resident of Stearns county, where soon after they were subject to many hardships brought on by the Indian War. Mr. Watkins was married in 1868 to Miss Mary Ellen Heberling, a native of Ohio. They have one daughter, Grace Eleanore.
In 1868 Mr. Watkins secured from Richard Ward, of Cincinnati, the right to manufacture and sell his remedies, and later bought out Mr. Ward's entire business. This was the beginning of what has proven to be one of the largest medicine and extract business houses in the United States. Starting with comparatively small resources, Mr. Watkins has, through persistent effort and aggressive business methods, increased the dimensions of his business to such a degree that he now has a traveling force of two hundred and fifty men, probably selling more goods at retail in this line than any concern in the country.
Mr. Watkins has been a resident of Winona since 1885. In 1890, In order to meet the demands of his increasing trade, he erected a large, substantial brick building, and in the spring of 1894 completed an addition larger than the original building, complete in all its appointments, forming one of the best equipped laboratories to be found anywhere. The organization of which he is the head, now hears the name of J. R. Watkins Medical Company, with a capital stock of five hundred thousand dollars.
While Mr. Watkins has never been active in a public capacity, he is a man who is always alive to the interests of the community. He has just given evidence of his faith in the future growth and development of Winona by the investment of large sums of money In various enterprises. Most laudable among these was his establishment, two years ago, of the Winona Morning Independent. At that time Winona was one of only three cities of its size in the United States that had no morning paper, and Mr. Watkins, recognising the demands of the community, especially for war news at that time, and its unusually broad field, invested large sums of money in providing an equipment that is modern and complete in every respect, including web-perfecting press, type-setting machines, stereotyping outfits, etc., with which to carry on the work. This has resulted in the building up of the largest daily newspaper in southern Minnesota,
Its circulation covering the city of Winona fully, and reaching some sixty adjoining cities, towns and villages.
Source: Judge Charles E. Flandrau, Encyclopedia of Biography of Minnesota (Chicago: The Century Publishing and Engraving Company, 1900), 298-299.