Herald JournalHerald Journal, Aug. 1, 2005

Original nail gun idea started in Winsted

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

Winsted has been known for many things throughout the years – aged cheese, bologna, and country music connections are just a few that come to mind.

But . . . the nail gun?

Most wouldn’t associate Winsted with the nail gun aside from the fact nail guns are probably commonplace in Winsted’s garages, just like any other city in the United States.

However, there is much more to the story than nail guns being in a lot of Winsted garages.

It seems a creative group of Winsted guys were sitting at a Legion meeting one evening in the mid-1950s, and came to the conclusion that they could buy a lot more beer if they had more money, according to Marvin Hirsch, who was one of the guys there that evening.

“Reuben (Miller) said we gotta invent an automatic nailer that works like a machine gun,” Hirsch said. Many of the guys sitting at the Legion club that night, including Hirsch, had returned from service in World War II and had knowledge of the machine gun and how it worked.

Hirsch, Miller, and John Ollig began spending time designing such a product in Ollig’s garage. After they had several workable demonstration models, they set out to find investors and try to make a go of it.

“Reuben was a carpenter, and he made six boxes to put the originals in,” Hirsch said, looking at one of the original six boxes and nail gun sitting on the table in front of him.

After the originals were complete, Hirsch, Ollig, Miller, and James Westerholm, who was in charge of the lumberyard owned by Lester’s of Lester Prairie, where the Blue Note currently stands, received three patents for the power nail driving tool and the multiple nail clip, giving them exclusive rights to the device they created.

One day, Hirsch and Ollig were having lunch at McCarthy’s Restaurant, which was a famous dining location located at the Highway 12/Highway 100 area.

“When we were there, there was only one other person at the bar,” Hirsch remembered as he sat reminiscing with Ollig’s wife, Tess, and three sons Mike, Mark, and Tom. “He was a guy we didn’t know, but we sent a drink to him ‘cause it looked like he had money. John (Ollig) asked him if he’d be interested in investing in a new company that wasn’t on the market yet.”

The two Winsted guys had the businessman interested, and he asked for more information. Hirsch and Ollig did the man one better, and gave him a demonstration of the pneumatic nail gun the group had created in Winsted.

The man, who was Jack Kuehn, the president of Skippy Peanut Butter, was impressed. He took Ollig and Hirsch back to McCarthy’s where they finished their drinks and went back to Kuehn’s office, where Kuehn cut the two a $5,000 check.

From there, the duo went to Maple Plain, where they met with the man who owned Halgren’s Ice Cream, and received another $5,000 check from him.

“We needed money,” Hirsch said. “Everything we did cost nothing but money.”

With that in mind, Ollig and Hirsch were having lunch in the Twin Cities, where they met boxing legend Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1919 to 1926, who told them “If you get to New York, I’ll buy you lunch.”

Shortly after this meeting, Ollig and Hirsch set out to New York in an effort to see if any companies would buy the nail gun patents, or perhaps give them royalties on the design.

One of the first things the duo did when they made it to New York was take Dempsey up on his offer, and they had lunch at his restaurant.

“I can still see that waiter,” Hirsch recalled. “He had a white towel on his left arm, and Jack came up and said ‘Give these boys the biggest steaks we have.’”

Hirsch and Ollig, both Catholics, told Dempsey that because it was Friday, they couldn’t have meat, so Dempsey told they waiter to “bring the boys whatever they want.”

The two spent the night in New York, and boarded the train to Independent Nail the following morning.

While they were on the train, they noticed a gentleman that looked familiar to them – Douglas Edwards, who was a CBS news broadcaster from 1948 to 1962.

Edwards, who was on his way home from a broadcast, talked to the two Winsted men about why they were on the east coast. The two told Edwards of their automatic nailer, and Edwards wished to see it.

Hirsch was in the process of handing the nail gun to Ollig when they were asked by railroad authorities to stand up and walk with them. Rail authorities spotted the device and thought it was an actual gun.

“They turned awful red when they saw the nail fall out of the gun onto the floor,” Hirsch said, noting they soon apologized to Hirsch and Ollig for the mistake.

The duo eventually made their way to Independent Nail Company, and showed their nail gun to the president, who asked if the gun needed electricity to work.

Hirsch and Ollig said it did not, and proceeded to demonstrate the nailer, using compressed air. The president of the company proceeded to bring several of the company’s engineers downstairs to where they were demonstrating use of the nail gun.

“Engineers are like scientists – they don’t believe something until they see it,” Hirsch said.

The engineers were skeptical of the new product, until they saw that it worked. The group was so satisfied with the performance of the gun it offered Ollig and Hirsch $25,000 if they could keep it for 30 days and have it sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be studied.

Ollig and Hirsch decided not to take the company up on its offer, and headed back to Winsted. They didn’t come back empty handed, though, as they each received autographed cards from Dempsey and Edwards, which both Hirsch and the Ollig family still have in their possession.

The duo set off to New York two more times, and also had meetings in Chicago, but ultimately decided to try to make a go of things themselves, and started Port-A-Matic Tools.

“For some reason, John (Ollig), knew the city of Grantsburg, Wis. was looking for industry, so we went out there and met with the banker, Walter Jensen,” Hirsch said.

Jensen helped the two find a production plant, and lent them some money to try to get things going. The company was beginning to see the light of day – it even had a few employees working on putting together nail clips. Before long, Ollig and Miller had moved to Grantsburg, and were looking forward to their business venture.

“I would have been next to go,” Hirsch said. The company produced literature about the Port-A-Matic nailer, and was planning on doing presentations for building and contracting firms in efforts to sell the gun and get their production lines rolling.

On company literature, it lists Ollig as president, Hirsch as vice president of purchasing, Miller as vice president of production, Paul Hertzog as secretary, Donald Quast as plant foreman, Clifford Rathmanner as sales manager, Carl Johnson as vice president of engineering, and Ollig’s cousin, BB Nelson, as treasurer. The fourth inventor of the nail gun, Westerholm, had moved to Seattle, Wash.

While it seemed everything was headed in the right direction for the company, the group essentially ran out of money, and was not able to keep it up.

The bank eventually foreclosed on the business, and took everything the company had – including the three patents the gentlemen from Winsted held.

“The bank had a public auction, and whoever bid the highest would own the patents,” Hirsch said. The highest bidder ended up being a company called Bostich, which is now an industry leader in pneumatic tools.

“Every time I see a roofer using a pneumatic nailer gun, I always think of my dad and those young men, who had a dream, and got to live it for a while,” Mark said.

“It’s a good story,” Hirsch said with a smile. “The only bad thing about it is how it turned out.”

Where the company ‘officers’ went following Port-A-Matic

After the demise of Port-A-Matic, John Ollig moved his growing family back to Winsted, where they owned and operated the Winsted Telephone Company.

The family moved again to Brainerd for a short while, and eventually back to Winsted, maintaining ownership of the phone company for many years. Ollig died in Winsted in March 1982. His wife, Tess, still resides in the area.

“In 1979, when the family moved back from Brainerd, he showed me the nail gun and explained how it worked,” Mark Ollig said. “I will never forget the whimsical look he had as he slowly shook his head while looking at the gun, no doubt remembering how it was, and the regret he had that it did not turn out the way he had envisioned it might have.”

Following his stint at Grantsburg, Reuben Miller moved to St. Paul, where he worked for the American Can Company. After he retired, he moved to Milaca, and he died in St. Paul in July 1999. Ollig and Miller were the only two men who actually moved to Grantsburg.

Marvin Hirsch and Clifford Rathmanner owned and operated a furniture store in Plymouth for a period of time, before pursuing other business ventures. Hirsch and his wife, Delores, reside in Winsted.

Rathmanner went on to become a restaurant owner and a land developer, and died in July 2002 in Florida.

Paul Hertzog lived in Winsted before moving north to Freeport, where he operated a liquor store. He moved back to the Winsted area in 2003, following the death of his wife, Florence.

“I spent a couple days up there in Grantsburg, and I guess they gave me that title,” Hertzog said. “That’s about my extent of it. They were on the right track . . . they didn’t have far to go to make it, but along the way, the money ran out.”

Donald Quast owned a gas station in Silver Lake for several years, lived in Mound, and also Lester Prairie. He died in Hutchinson in December 1997.

Ollig’s cousin BB Nelson worked full-time at their family’s stucco company, located in the Twin Cities.

Carl Johnson lived in St. Louis Park at the time of Port-A-Matic. Further information about Johnson could not be found.

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