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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Iconic company Fuller Brush moved to Great Bend in the 1970s

By Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle

One of the nation’s most iconic companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month: the Fuller Brush Co.

The 106-year-old company has been mentioned in movies and cartoons and has boasted that some of the most famous Americans were once salesmen — the Rev. Billy Graham, television host Dick Clark, baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio and actor Dennis Quaid.

But for the past four decades in Kansas, Fuller Brush has been an unlikely manufacturer in Great Bend — unlikely because it started on the East Coast.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Alfred C. Fuller — a 21-year-old immigrant from Nova Scotia, Canada — began making brushes on a bench in the basement of his sister’s house in Somerville, Mass. By 1906, he had moved to Hartford, Conn., and founded his company with $375.

He talked to housewives and asked them what they needed. He built brushes based on their comments.

The company soon became known worldwide for its fleet of salesmen who went door-to-door demonstrating and selling the brushes and other cleaning products and supplies. It was so iconic that in 1948, Red Skelton starred in the movie “The Fuller Brush Man.”

By the early 1970s, the company was looking to relocate from its East Coast headquarters.

“They wanted to get out of the New York area and just go west,” said Robert Parrish, who was mayor of Great Bend in the 1970s, the current site of the company headquarters.

“We had this old World War II air base that the city had developed into an industrial park, and we had some utilities out there,” Parrish said. “We put on rush parties to bring people out. The fun part was that they had to bring people from New York to Great Bend and that was quite a substantial cultural shock.”

What impressed the New Yorkers, Parrish said, was the hunting and fishing possibilities surrounding Great Bend – that and a dedicated work force. The majority of workers were farm families.

“Farm people have skills,” Parrish said.

Fuller Brush in Great Bend currently employs 180 people, who help make more than 2,000 products.

In 2008, when the national economy took a nosedive, the company — which did a lot of business providing cleaning supplies to hotels and motels internationally — suffered, said Howard Partington, Great Bend city manager. He’s hopeful the Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization will help the company continue its long legacy in Kansas.

“We want to work with them,” he said. “This will give them a chance to build back up.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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