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#stlstuff: How corn flakes, thermometers and a mom's recipe inspired a local mayo business

#stlstuff: How corn flakes, thermometers and a mom's recipe inspired a local mayo business

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On a shelf in Charlie Bolin’s kitchen in his Richmond Heights apartment sit dozens of thermometers from his great-grandfather’s business, American Thermometer Co. They still work, but at this point they serve more as decoration – and inspiration.

Bolin’s great-grandfather was also named Charles Bolin. Bolin, 59, grew up only knowing that his great-grandfather had been an investor who helped bring Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to the market.

The elder Bolin was a businessman who saw a good opportunity when he knew it. He had been in the insurance business, was president of the St. Louis and St. Charles Bridge Co., and also head of the Grand Avenue Bank and owner of the St. Louis Crystal Water and Soda Co.

“The more I read about him, I’m like, the more I’m like him,” Bolin said.

Bolin is making his business connections on a smaller scale: his mother’s mayonnaise.

Charlie Bolin’s mother, Irene, loved to cook, and Bolin grew up helping her in the kitchen. Before she died of cancer in 1995, she gave Bolin her cookbook. He noticed her recipe for homemade mayonnaise wasn’t in the book, and he asked her to write it down. She did, along with the handwritten words: “Good luck son.”

Bolin had worked as a butcher with Schnucks and Straubs for about 10 years and found himself without a job in 2008. He wondered what he would do next and thought of his mother’s mayonnaise. Bolin took all of the free business classes he could, and eventually put Irene’s Fresh Homemade Mayonnaise on the St. Louis market.

People loved the mix of the lemon juice, pepper, dijon mustard, egg yolks and tiny flecks of onion in each jar. Bolin can still remember helping his mom chop the bits of onion when someone asked her to bring her mayonnaise to a gathering.

“No, smaller, Charlie,” she’d say.

It was around this time that Bolin studied more of his family history. His dad left the family when Bolin was 9 years old, so he wasn’t around to tell stories. But Bolin found newspaper and magazine clippings about his great-grandfather, the other Charles Bolin, a city mover and shaker.

“We can say with the utmost conviction that his truly has been a life devoted to accomplishment and one deserving of the highest degree of praise and commemoration,” said one breathy writeup in a society magazine, the Censor, on the occasion of the golden wedding anniversary of Bolin and his wife, Minnie, in 1939.

Bolin was working in the insurance industry in 1905 when he visited the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan to be treated for gout. He tried the corn flakes they served there, thought they could be marketed and urged Will Kellogg to start his own company and offered to help fund it. He lent Kellogg $30,000, and Kellogg didn’t repay it, spending most of the money on advertising. Bolin took him to court, and the Supreme Court of Michigan said the company was too new and the stock value was young.

The Bolins had five children and continued with other business ventures. He gave his St. Louis Crystal Water and Soda Co. to his son Ray as a wedding present in 1922, along with a house on Aberdeen Place in Clayton. One of Ray’s sons, Charles R., became vice president of the company.

Charlie Bolin, who is a junior named after his father, remembers when his dad took him to the plant, where the Ronnoco Coffee Co. sits today. Workers let young Charlie brand the company name into the crates, hammer the rubber corks into the bottles and squeeze into an empty crate to ride up the conveyor belt like a roller coaster.

Bolin has similar crates in his apartment, and one sits on top of his refrigerator, barely big enough to fit a young grade-schooler. “I was a little guy,” Bolin said, smiling.

As Bolin learned more about his great-grandfather, and as his collection of thermometers and water bottles grew, he focused on his mayonnaise business. He had a manufacturer in Arkansas who would mix small batches for him, and demand grew.

But on Dec. 7 — Pearl Harbor Day, he points out — he got an email from the manufacturer saying they wouldn’t make it anymore. He’s got a couple of jars left in his refrigerator, with the yellow-orange label that shows a picture of his mother, but they’re out of date. He’s looking for a new manufacturer and has a connection to a food company in Washington state that might have some space for him.

“It’s just a hiccup in the road,” says Bolin, who is single and does not have children.

Meanwhile, he says he gets emails almost daily from people looking for his mayonnaise.

But when he wants, he can still mix his own personal batches in his kitchen, near the soda water crates and thermometers, using his mom’s handwritten recipe with the words: “Good luck son.”

#stlstuff is a regular monthly feature of the STL Life section. Keep sharing your historical St. Louis artifacts by using the #stlstuff hashtag on Twitter, uploading them in our album at stltoday.com/stlstuff, or mailing them to vhahn@post-dispatch.com.

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