The Beginnings of KN Root Beer
Leslie was born May 5, 1924 to Elmer Knutson and Irene (Tiedeman) Knutson in Goodhue Company, Minnesota on the farm. He and his younger sister, Shirley, lived on the farm until it was sold to their uncle, Howard and Louise Knutson due to Elmer’s disability from World War I.
Being on the farm, he and his Grandpa, Hans Knutson, had a special relationship and Les was welcomed often. Les also had a horse, Jimmy, which they sold when he went into service. Les and Shirley attended country school. Later the family moved into Red Wing, Minnesota where the siblings
attended grade school and graduated from High School. They lived at 319 E. 7th Street in a large two story home. Leslie was generally called Les. After World War II, Evy and Bob Seiz and baby Dennis lived upstairs.
Les graduated from Red Wing, Minnesota high school in 1942. He had some advice from a
friend, Richard Blondell, to enlist in either the United States Coast Guard or the United States Navy. According to Richard, it seemed more likely one would return home from the Navy or Coast Guard after the war. So Les received his training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station and served in the Coast Guard from June 5, 1942 until March 20, 1946. He was stationed in North Carolina; Bellingham, Washington; and the last 15 months on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs. He had numerous service duty aboard Coast Guard ships. He was classed as a Radioman 3rd class and later 2nd class. On St. Paul Island, the USCG was in charge of the LORAN operation (Long Range Aid to Navigation). That installation was a classified subject at that time.
His mother in a letter mentions that he was on Saint Paul Island for 15 months. During the Fall of 1945, been given a leave and went to visit Arlene Wehr on Long Island. Then he took her to Minnesota to meet his family and the family suggested to him in a letter of November 30, 1945 that he should marry her. Later, in one of her letters to him, she says that she thinks that she would need to be able to physically visit with her mother every week. Arlene discovered Minnesota was a good distance from Long Island. Les said that near the end of his military service, he hitch-hiked a ride in New York state and told the gentleman driving that he would be going back to Minnesota shortly and asked him for any suggestions as to the sort of work he should consider. The gentleman started speaking with him and mentioned the food drive-ins and so they discussed the idea. Les would be discharged March 20, 1946 and started looking for his opportunity. Then from the information I am reading from the sales slip from City Gateway Transfer Company, the “Root Beer stand” and the equipment were paid in full on May 19, 1946. Later there were sales slips for CO2, pipe, concentrate and other fountain supplies during May 1946. He set the barrel up at a location in Red Wing, Minnesota. He told me that his friends often came by and asked for a free root beer. A traveling salesman, “Bud” Kopplin, suggested that he move his business to Eau Claire for a larger location and lot after the root beer barrel had been open for a short time in Red Wing, Minnesota.
In speaking with Lois Malm this year, she believes that Raulo Malm made the arrangements to have the root beer barrel trucked to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It was probably late June 1946. It was there I met your dad. A group of girls were out riding around, and someone suggested that we drink a root beer at that place on Hwy 12. We all got out of the car and visited with Les and had a root beer. We did that often. Some days later, we told him we were going dancing, so he arrived at the dance after he finished work. That evening all of them had a ride home with a fellow but I did not. I requested a ride from Les and that was the start of a two-year relationship that ended in marriage.
At his location, a neighbor offered him a place to sleep in their basement and then he could mix his root beer in a Hires Root Beer keg. He also used the neighbor’s water and electricity to heat hot dogs and have lights at night. By fall, his business had decreased so he closed. He was accepted into a GI training program for veterans. He worked nine months at Stevenson’s, a lady’s apparel store in Winona, Minnesota. So, he drove back and forth to Eau Claire all winter for the weekend and would stay at the YMCA. By spring, he decided retail was not the type of work he desired and so moved back to Eau Claire.
At some time during 1946-1947, he worked as a travelling salesman selling artificial black pepper, a wartime product. When the real product arrived back in the United States again, people would not buy the artificial product. One Christmas he delivered mail over the holiday season. The year the drive-in closed, he bought and sold Christmas trees. The winter before we married, he worked at a Standard Oil service station where all customers were waited on personally.
Les moved his root beer barrel to downtown Eau Claire the summer of 1947 where he was able to secure a location in a public parking lot. There he paid rent and received some utilities. Sometimes he slept in the three feet above where he stored some supplies. When he closed in the fall, he worked the Standard Oil station until spring.
During the winter, Les decided to sleep on Bernie’s back porch. Bernie was a friend who rented a room a few blocks away from my home on Rust Street. At that time, I was working as an X-Ray technician at Luther Hospital (now Mayo Luther) and usually he gave me a ride to work in the morning and then he would go to work.
Les had heard about Mr Bergerson who was building drive-ins like A&W with his own franchise. We went to LaCrosse, Wisconsin to speak with him. In the spring of 1948, Les built his first drive-in in Marshfield, Wisconsin on a highway going south out of town. I did get to Marshfield on the bus one time to pound nails in the roof boards and stayed with a neighbor down the street.
Shortly after he opened the drive-in, the highway was completely closed with no auto access. Les managed walk-up trade himself that summer. He bought a used 26-foot house trailer he could live in that summer and by September the drive-in was closed. We were married September 26, 1948 at First Congregational Church in Eau Claire. Shortly after, we left for California towing the trailer. He had borrowed money from his grandfather. Out of Amarillo, TX, we had a major problem with a wheel on the house trailer that forced us to remove the tire and axle to be fixed back in Amarillo. I did not know how serious our lack of money was nor was I worried.
We stopped in Riverside CA to park the trailer at his friend’s house, so he could travel to Los Angeles, interview with Standard Oil Co. and use his Eau Claire reference for a job. Then we moved to Pasadena, CA. One month later, I started working for Southern California Bell Telephone as an information operator. We spent the winter of ’48 and’49 on Colorado Blvd. at two different trailer rental parks. We saw the Rose Parade with all the other folk that visit. Also, we visited other famous places on our days off. Generally, we worked the weekends. My worksite was on Colorado Blvd. so I would ride the bus back and forth when I had a split shift. Les’ work was within walking distance of my work. It was our joke that I always got a ride home from work when I received a pay check. We had debts to pay.
During the time we lived in California, there was a famous place in Glendale, CA called “Bob’s Big Boy Hamburgers”. Les was able to make an appointment with him. So on our day off, we went to his office and talked. Of course, he was very encouraging, but I do not remember the conversation. During the six months we were in Pasadena, we made new friends in two trailer parks. We visited Los Angeles, Hollywood, the beach, Mt. Wilson, San Juan Capistrano and other attractions. In April we headed back to Marshfield, Wisconsin to open the drive-in. We took a road back through northern California and stopped to visit my Uncle Gust Preuss, mother’s oldest brother. The next evening, we were in Reno visiting a casino…no money spent.
Back in Marshfield, WI, the road was open for us to open the Root Beer Drive-In. Our house trailer was parked at the back of the lot. We basically worked the business ourselves until weather warmed and help was hired. Also, we had some neighbors who became good friends to us and I used their clothes-lines to hang out our washing. We bought a wringer washing machine before we left California so we washed clothes in the back of the drive-in. We were still using that square wash tub to rinse clothes and bathe ourselves. But we did have an inside bathroom now.
The drive-in was open until October and then it became too cold for root beer and hot dogs served outside. So we closed and Les went to work for Household Finance Corporation travelling the surrounding area to collect monies or promises of payment on consumer loans. The house trailer was sold as it had no heat. We bought a $10 gas stove and icebox for our apartment and moved the bed and sofa into the apartment. Mom and Dad contributed their oak breakfast set. I could use the bus system to work for JC Penney until Christmas. I also worked for them before Easter. An oil stove in the kitchen heated the apartment and a pail of water on top. We also acquired a cocker spaniel named Tuffy who came to Texas with us. I rented a sewing machine and bought Wiss scissors with my $11 tip money. Les acquired a new car.
In the spring of 1950, when we reopened the drive-in, Les still travelled and worked for Household Finance and I would open the drive-in by taking the bus to work. At suppertime, he would eat at a restaurant and then relieve me to go eat. We had help most of the time and so our second summer continued and Les worked long hours.
It was sometime in the winter of ’49 or ’50 that we visited Mr. Bergerson in LaCrosse, WI. His office was in Indiana where he was in the drive-in business. He was already doing business in the south for the longer season and encouraged Les to sell Marshfield and open a place in the south. He currently had someone building in Tyler. We did sell our drive-in to a local person from Marshfield. Then we bought an old farm wagon to tow our belongings behind the car with our wash tub hanging on the back.
The trip south started with a stop in Albert Lea, Minnesota to say good-bye to Shirley and Don Zillgitt who were working there. They had married in 1948, the month before we did. It was a harrowing trip as we entered Iowa. There was a terrific snow storm and wind blowing it horizontally. We had to stop on a hill to place chains on our back tires to have traction on icy hills. At noon we stopped at a motel due to the weather. A semi-driver had seen us on the hill and stopped to tell us we needed to be off the road. We were able to proceed the next day about noon.
We knew from Mr. Bergerson there were drive-ins being built in Sherman and Tyler, Texas by two customers. So those cities were not a business option. We looked at Denison, Texas and other locations on the way to Tyler and then Longview. Texas was really unknown country to us. When we arrived in Longview, it appeared that there were some desirable locations. R.B. Williams, realtor, was our source of information. We did continue to look for locations out of town but came back to 1620 S. Green Street which we bought in February 1951. For this purchase in Texas, we had problems acquiring money from the sale of the property in Marshfield, Wisconsin…which was finally resolved.
Early 1952, we had plans for a house at 2207 S. 12th Street and it was under construction as was the rest of the neighborhood. I do remember my Mom and Dad visited us early that year we lived in the garage apartment. We slept in the garage with our extra bed as they slept upstairs in the bedroom/living room. By March we had moved to our home and what a thrill. I did have time to work in the yard and Les continued opening the drive-in at 11 AM. He would put disinfectant in the lines on closing and flush lines in the morning and turn the steam tables on. I would have a big meal ready about 10:30 AM so he could eat and open the drive-in.
I had surgery the previous fall for an ovarian tumor and in March I suspected I was pregnant. While I continued to help, my hours were reduced and I could be a house wife part time. Jan, you were born November 21, 1952 a few weeks early. Mr. Bergerson came to Longview when Jan was two weeks old to speak with Les. At that time Les realized he could sell drive-ins for himself. We were no longer associated with Mr. Bergerson for supplies or marketing.
Les changed the name of the drive-in to K-W Root Beer which stood for Knutson-Williams, the real estate agent who also had bank connections.
During Christmas 1952, when Jan was just one month old, we drove to Minnesota and Wisconsin to visit family. At that time my dad encouraged Les to have K-W registered as a company name but Les did not. Ultimately, A&W Root Beer filed a suit against us due to the similarity. Of course, they said they would take us to court. So the company became K-N Root Beer (based on our last name Knutson) about 1953 and R.B. Williams was no longer associated with our business.
Shirley and Don Zillgitt had decided they would enter the K-N drive-in business after they had visited us. They built the first franchise in 1953 in Kilgore, Texas. Several years later they had two daughters. Les’ mother moved to Kilgore after their dad’s death in Red Wing, Minnesota. The family became very busy taking care of drive-in business and little girls. Soon others were speaking to Les about the drive-in business. The Jones’, I believe, were next. (She was a nurse on the delivery floor at Good Shepherd where we first met). They built a franchise in Athens, Texas.
By this time, Les had developed his own root beer flavor with Hurty-Peck flavors. He personalized and purchased mugs from Indiana Glass Co. Later, we were using mugs as large as a quart for root beer and also root beer floats. So now we had three sizes of mugs plus baby mugs. We added new flavors like orange, grape and lemonade.
During the 1950’s, sassafras flavoring from the tree bark was used as an ingredient in all root beer flavors. It was considered by the FDA to be dangerous long term so it was mandatory to eliminate the flavoring from root beer. New samples were submitted at several drive-ins to satisfy company tasters. The resulting product is being used today.
In 1955 Les sold the Green Street drive-in to Jack and Mary Martin who also had two very young children. They rented the house behind the drive-in. When the Martins sold, we acquired the house for the office and to store supplies. They were successful with the business and a number of years later it was sold to Bob and Dolores Bruce who worked the business until 2012.
During this time, we ordered supplies to be shipped direct to our customers from the factories but we also kept stock here in Longview. Our garage and an old garage on Green St. became our warehouses. Often, potential franchise owners came to our home to talk “drive-in” business. The home phone was our business phone and I could receive orders from a customer and label them to be shipped for pick-up. The house would be very busy at times.
I did not have a car until 1957 when Jan started kindergarten so friends were very helpful to me. Jan and I used the bus service often. In 1960 we moved to 904 Happiness St. I finally had an automatic washer…no dryer yet. The wash tub was used for a doggie bath and kids outside played in the tub. On Happiness St., we had much more room for supplies in addition to the old house on Green St. We would receive a ton of canned K-N barbeque and chili that I labeled and shipped out.
Les built the business by contracting and building approximately two new drive-ins a year. During that time, he would be on the building site as the contractor. Then he would come home weekends to check the mail, place orders and get clean clothes. We also communicated during the week about orders by phone. It generally took over a month to complete a new site. I labeled and shipped many orders from the house or from the warehouse. Les would order by phone for direct shipments from supplier to customer.
We had a get-together in Longview, Texas for K-N operators each year after New Year’s. This was a time to share new information and help each other with problem solving and sharing stories. We hosted an evening of supper and entertainment. Also, I had prepared lunch for one day at the warehouse. The meeting was well attended, and the owners came from a large area. Many times, a supplier would be here with new information or equipment.
The old house next to the Green St. drive-in was razed and a new warehouse was built in 1964. There was plenty of room for supplies, parts and a boat. Yes! Water skiing and a lake house in 1968 on Lake Cherokee was enjoyed.
The business continued growth so that by 1975, we briefly had 30 K-N drive-ins operating. During those years several operators were having money problems and difficulty keeping up with expenses. The early 1970’s had an economic downturn that led to financial difficulties for some operators. Now there are some drive-in units being operated by second generation family members. The business today is owned and
operated by Jan Knutson McAfee.
List of places operated as K-N Root Beer at one time:
Texas: Alice, Beeville, Uvalde, San Marcos, Seguin, Atlanta, Longview,
Standard St. and Green St., Kilgore, Hearne, Gatesville, Brenham, Amarillo, Andrews, Coleman,
San Angelo, Athens, Bonham, Weatherford, Abilene, Vernon, Cleburne, Cuero, Killeen, Hearne, Gatesville, Bowie, Graham, Brownwood, Sherman, Marlin, Taylor,
Mexia and Sulphur Springs;
and the out of state sites which included:
Leesville, LA, Greeley, CO, Dyersburg, TN, Martin, TN, Durant, OK, Jonesboro, AR.
Dedicated to Jan With Love.
-Glenna (93 years old)