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Charities Raise $2 Million a Year : Gum-Ball Machine Maker Does Well by Doing Good

July 26, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

AKRON, N.Y. — This village may be tiny, but it has an impact far out of proportion to its size. Every day, its most famous product sets 7 million jaws wagging in filling stations, grocery stores, cleaners, bowling alleys and office buildings from Maine to California.

In addition, it earns more than $2 million a year for 6,000 service clubs and charitable institutions--in pennies, nickels and dimes.

The chewing gum produced by Ford Gum & Machine Co. is sold in 400,000 gum-ball machines across the nation. Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary, Jaycees, Optimists, Junior Women's Clubs, hospitals and many other groups sponsor the machines to raise funds.

It was a Lockport, N.Y., Baptist minister, W. H. Mason, who in 1919 invented the gum-ball machine as we know it today. He received a patent on it, and his son, Ford Mason, started manufacturing the machines in the basement of his father's church that same year.

At first, Mason made only the machines, but soon he was also producing gum. He called his company Ford after his first name, and he described his product as the "Cadillac of chewing gum."

Ford Gum machines have been a part of Americana ever since.

Today, 200 independent distributors from coast to coast lease or buy the penny, nickel and dime gum-ball machines from Ford Gum & Machine and are supplied with the gum made by 85 employees in a plant that was originally a dairy here in Akron, a town of 3,000 about 30 miles northeast of Buffalo, N.Y.

Keeping the machines filled with gum balls is a family tradition with many distributors, such as farmer Norlan Rowbotham, 50, of Walworth, Wis. His father, Norris Rowbotham, now 88, became a Ford Gum distributor in 1927.

The younger Rowbotham has a herd of milk cows and grows corn, oats and soybeans on a 600-acre farm. And each year the farmer and his two sons, when not working at the farm, drive 30,000 miles servicing 2,500 gum-ball machines in 14 Wisconsin counties. Half of the machines still dispense gum for a penny.

Runs Into Old Machine

"Some of the machines in busy shopping centers have to be refilled once a month," Rowbotham said. "Some machines in rural areas I refill only once a year." Penny machines hold 900 gum balls, while nickel and dime machines hold 360.

About 100 of his gum-ball machines have been at the same spot since his father set them up 59 years ago. He told about stopping at an old gas station way out in the country recently to refill one of his father's original machines.

"The old couple who owned and operated the gas station sell less than $6 worth of gum a year. I told them I was picking up the gum-ball machine since it did not get much use," Rowbotham recalled.

The old man had tears in his eyes when he told Rowbotham: "Your father installed that gum-ball machine the day we opened this filling station. You can't take it. It's part of the family."

"You can't imagine how attached people get to these little old Ford gum-ball machines," Rowbotham said. He left the machine at the old gas station.

One of Rowbotham's sponsoring organizations, the Janesville Lions Club, uses the $3,000 or more a year in commissions from its 200 machines to underwrite its Flying Eye program. The money buys gas used by three local pilots who fly anywhere in the United States to pick up eyes from donors when they die and deliver them to recipients wherever they may be.

In 1939, the Women's Auxiliary of the Columbus, Ohio, Children's Hospital approached a Ford Gum distributor to try to work out an arrangement to raise money with gum-ball machines.

Mason picked up on the idea, and within months service clubs and charitable organizations across the nation were using Ford Gum machines to raise funds. The Children's Hospital of Columbus was the first and continues to use the machines to this day.

Bought Surplus Plane

Mason bought a surplus military DC-3 when World War II ended, hired a pilot and used the airplane to fly his gum-ball machines all over the country. He hired Ronald Reagan as a radio pitchman for Ford gum balls in the early 1950s. "This is a real American way of serving our needy neighbors," Reagan's script read, "Keeping our nation great with people getting satisfaction from doing and chewing."

In 1970, Mason sold Ford Gum & Machine Co. and retired to Florida, where he lives today at the age of 92. The company's present owner is Leaf Inc. of Bannockburn, Ill., a subsidiary of Huhtanamaki, the giant international candy company based in Finland ($800 million in annual sales).

More than 80% of the company's production goes into the gum-ball machines. The gum is more popular than ever and sales continue to rise, according to Vice President George Stege.

Ford Gum makes the gum in Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors, produces private-label medical gum, anti-tobacco and stay-awake gum, vitamin C gum, kosher gum and all-natural gum sold in health food stores.

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