The Piano Player – Blog 9
Leora Back (Bach) was born 1912 at the home of her parents near Zalma, Missouri. She was one of eight children, four boys and four girls. Seven of the children graduated 8th grade from Zalma. One brother died at young age a few days after falling into a boiling kettle of lye.
Leora’s parents never owned a motorized vehicle. The farm was four miles from town one way and four miles from Berong Baptist Church the other. They’d all ride on a wagon pulled by a team of horses to both places at least once per week, sometimes more often if a fair or special event was taking place in town or a revival at church. The boys left home immediately after graduating 8th grade and found work in the St. Louis area. The girls remained on the farm assisting with chores until married.
Buford Kaiser was born 1908 near Apple Creek, Missouri, the third of eight children, seven of whom grew to adulthood, an older sister, the only girl in the brood, died of disease at two. Buford’s family moved frequently, chasing work. German names were unpopular during WWI and an impediment to finding good work and frequently a threat to children at school. They were living in northeast Kansas during the war when Andrew, Buford’s father, changed the family name from Kaiser to Crader, taking his wife’s maiden name. The Craders, still German but with a different name, were living on a farm near that of Leora Bach for a few years where Buford attended school at Zalma. After graduating 8th grade, the highest grade provided at Zalma, Buford followed his older brother to St. Louis and found work—the two of them eventually started a small business repairing tires.
Leora, the neighbor farm girl, had caught Buford’s eye and the two exchanged letters. He returned to the area by train and foot several times per year to see Leora. When Leora turned sixteen, her father gave her hand in marriage to Buford. While they’d preferred a church ceremony at Berong Baptist, the preacher was busy during the week working in the timber woods, making railroad ties, a mainstay for the Zalma area. So, Buford picked up Leora at the home of her parents using a car borrowed from his older brother, Giff, and they drove to Marble Hill, the county seat and were joined in marriage by a justice of the peace. Their honeymoon was the six hour drive to St. Louis. It was the first time Leora had been more than twenty miles from home.
Buford and Leora lived in a one room apartment near the tire store in what is now the south side of St. Louis, until the birth of their first son, who died at birth. Soon after, they moved to a nearby two room apartment, purchased their first family Bible and paid for it over time, twenty five cents per week. A second son, Donald Dee was born 1933 at nearby St. Louis city hospital and survived. Donald got a sister in 1937 and another in 1938.
1944, never having felt comfortable living in the city and growing weary of the increasing crime in the neighborhood, Buford sold his interest in the tire business to his brother and moved to a farm in Bollinger County Missouri, just outside of Marble Hill. Buford, Leora’s brother in-law, and Leora’s uncle pooled their resources and opened Bollinger County Equipment, selling International Harvester farm machinery. Donald Dee, then eleven, ran the farm, taking care of livestock, mowing hay, and twice daily milking their one dairy cow.
Leora was hemming a dress and listening to the radio one Saturday afternoon when the phone rang two shorts and a long, the Crader home’s party-line ring—it was a friend. “Donnie just won the talent contest,” the friend told her.
“What talent contest?” Leora asked. The friend went on to explain that there’d been a talent contest to raise money to finance a building for International Shoe—who’d promised to locate a shoe factory in Marble Hill if the city provided them a facility. “What in blue blazes did he do to win?” Leora asked.
“Well, he played the piano, of course,” the friend answered. “He’s a marvelous piano player,” she continued.
Leora didn’t let the friend know, but she had no idea Don could play the piano—there wasn’t one in the home. Donald Dee had some explaining to do. Over dinner that night, twelve year old Donald Dee explained that he’d been playing the piano at a local tavern. He’d heard and watched another man playing the piano at the tavern during his paper route stops and had been paying close attention to the piano player at church. And one day sat down and started playing.
“It’s really not that difficult, Mom,” Don tried to explain. “The keyboard is divided into little groups of keys that make the same notes only with a little different pitch. I just listen to the music and then find the right group of keys that sound like what I’ve heard.” To Don, playing the piano came almost as easy as using one’s hands to do math. After all, he was half Bach.
Eventually, the obvious conclusion was that he’d been gifted by God to play the piano. During the course of his life he’d play in countless venues–weddings, church services, funerals, and plays. If a hotel lobby had a piano and Don had the time, he’d sit down and draw a crowd. Once while touring Germany on a trip to Stihl and having dinner in a Bavarian pub, he asked if he could play the piano when the dinner band took a break. The band never returned from break and the pub was soon overflowing and passersby crowded around the open windows listening and singing along. He never learned to read music.
By fourteen, only referred to as Donald Dee by his mother when in trouble, Don had a part time job working for his grandfather, Andrew Crader, who by then had settled for good in Bollinger County and owned a Kaiser-Frazer automobile dealership. Don, confident and familiar with St. Louis, having lived there until eleven, would take the bus from Marble Hill to St. Louis, pick up new Kaiser-Frazers, and drive them to Marble Hill. Kasier-Frazers, built in Willow Run, Michigan in what was then the largest building in the world, once used to build B24s during WWII, were the best selling cars in America for a few years following WII. By the time Don turned sixteen, old enough to get a driver’s license, he’d been driving for two years.
After graduating high school in 1951, Don attended college and learned all he needed to be successful in one year, returned home and joined his father, Buford, at Bollinger County Equipment. During the summer of 1952 the two of them bought out the partners and renamed the company Crader Equipment Company, selling International Harvester farm equipment and refrigerators, and Don married his high school sweetheart, Nancy Dewitt. It was an eventful summer for a nineteen year old.
Don and Nancy signed for their first mortgage while purchasing a two room, four hundred square foot home for $1200. Their first child, a daughter, arrived eleven months later. Soon after their second child, a son, came along they arranged a second loan on the house and doubled its size to nearly nine hundred square feet by adding three small bedrooms, an indoor toilet, and central heat. The central heat was essentially a floor furnace located in the center of the house. The dining area was tiny and the small chrome sided Formica dinette table had only one vinyl chair, making room for an upright piano. The family gathered for meals around a small bar that separated the kitchen from the would-be dining area. After dinner, the kids washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen while Nancy did the books for Crader Equipment and Don entertained them by playing the piano. His nightly repertoire included many gospels and classics but seldom an evening went by without his playing Floyd Kramer’s “Last Date.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvfG9uFswis
During the 1950s, Crader Equipment began selling chainsaws and lawnmowers to supplement company revenue. While IH tractors were purchased directly from the factory, the saws and mowers were purchased from a wholesale distributor. Don, then twenty five years old, reached the conclusion that sales opportunities in a small rural Missouri county were limited. He decided that becoming a wholesaler offered the greatest opportunity for growth. While investigating the wholesale distribution concept he noticed a magazine ad soliciting distributors for a German made chainsaw—Stihl. It was 1959 when he contacted the Tull-Williams company in New York to learn more about becoming a wholesale distributor. At the time, he was more interested in becoming a wholesaler with a unique proposition than any particular brand or product.
After an application and exchange of letters, Don and Gordon Williams spoke on the phone. Soon thereafter Crader Equipment placed an order for a chainsaw and was established as a Stihl dealer. Following rave reviews from local loggers, Don convinced Buford to place an order for the minimum to become a distributor, forty chainsaws. This commitment required a bank loan, not a comfortable proposition for Buford, who’d raised three children during the infamous depression years, and like so many of his day, adverse to debt.
The nearest truck depot was thirty miles away, and a pallet of saws was too much to send UPS or USPS so the first pallet of forty saws arrived by train. A spur of the Iron Mountain Railway ran through Marble Hill carrying general merchandise and fuel in and wood products and lead and iron ore out–the train depot was located only a couple of hundred yards from Crader Equipment. Since the station was primarily a tie yard, there were several men familiar with timber cutting in general and chainsaws in particular working nearby and able to join the Crader Equipment team and entire Crader family when the doors to the box car were slid back revealing the neatly stacked pallet of new saws. It was the largest stack of new chainsaws anyone in the curious rural crowd had ever seen—a prescient moment. The saws were quickly loaded onto the Crader Equipment International Harvester flatbed pickup truck and subsequently hidden in Buford and Leora’s basement. Buford was sure it would take several years to sell them and pay off the loan.
Don and Nancy, by then both twenty six years old and with two young children, having partially paid down the home mortgage, returned to the bank for another loan—this time to purchase a used 1958 Chevrolet Impala. Within a week Don filled the trunk of the car with Stihl Lightnings and hit the road calling on established chainsaw dealers from a list given to him by a lawnmower salesman. At first most dealers weren’t interested but because of a good reference given to them by the mutual lawnmower salesman, a few offered to take a demo unit and get it into the hands of their chainsaw customers. Those who took demos usually ended up paying for the demo unit, selling it to a customer who’d formerly been using a Homelite or McCulloch, becoming a dealer, and then ordering more saws, one at a time. A couple of those early dealers are in business today and will be featured in later blogs.
Having been a chainsaw dealer before becoming a wholesale distributor for Stihl, Don understood the frequency of repair for chainsaws and the need for a quick and dependable source for replacement parts. Since the sales of units were still very slow, he had ample time to quickly ship replacement parts to the small but growing list of Stihl dealers. Chainsaw Age eventually did a story on Crader’s parts service in which an order placed by 2PM was generally shipped out the same day. It was the quality of the Stihl and the dependability of the parts service that endeared Don and Crader Equipment to the growing number of Stihl dealers. And those two attributes remain at the top of the list for Crader and the Stihl dealers they serve today.
During the fall of 1961 Don and Nancy had their third child, a son, purchased their first new car, a 1962 Chevrolet Impala, a carbon copy duplicating machine, an AB Dick off-set printing press, and a Grumman canoe. It was an eventful fall. The name chosen for the son was that of the person calling on them from Stihl at the time—Val. Family vacations in those days consisted of drives through the heart of Missouri’s hard wood region where the oak for the staves that make the barrels holding world renowned wine and whisky are grown. Hardwood trees were then and remain so today among the most difficult to harvest for both man and machine. In those days nearly every small town in the hardwood region featured a chainsaw dealer, but only a few turned out to be reliable and creditworthy. And the hardwood country was also home to numerous spring-fed, fast running rivers, perfect for canoes.
Don was a huge fan of Stan Musial, so much so that he named his first born son for him. Fearful that 1962 might be Musial’s final season as a player, sprung for two tickets for father’s day Sunday to watch the Cards and Giants. He and Stan, the boy, got an early start for the long drive to St. Louis to see Stan the man. For Stan the boy, the chance to ride in the 327 cubic inch, 4 barrel carbureted ’62 Chevy, by then with glass-packed dual exhaust, was almost as exciting as seeing Stan Musial and the Cards.
Stan the Man, who then at age 41, was in the midst of one of his best years, finishing the year second in the National League with an on-base percentage of .416 and third in batting at .330. Stan the boy, only six at the time didn’t realize the significance of the game. Don most likely used the fact that Stan, the boy, had been named for Stan, the man, as the reason to spring for the cost of the trip and the tickets to see Stan the man. The Cards throttled the Giants 13 to 3—Musial made four plate appearances, with two hits, one base on balls, and three runs batted in.
Years later, Stan and his wife, Debbie, would have the distinguished and rare honor of being invited to the home of Stan and Lillian Musial. Stan the Man and Lillian shared their story and how’d they’d been high school sweethearts at Pennsylvania’s Donora High where Musial had played baseball with another budding star, Buddy Griffey, the grandfather of Ken Griffery, Jr. Musial played for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1941 until 1963, except for 1945, when he was serving in the US Navy. Stan the boy, then realized the enormity of the special day back in the spring of ’62.
Baseball was an integral part of everyday life at the Craders. Stan and his older sister spent nearly every summer Sunday afternoons and occasional week nights watching Don play town ball while they sold sodas from the back of the topless Scout. Stan still has the belt mounted coin changer used while selling sodas from the Scout’s tailgate, and the 33 1/3album of Harry Caray’s radio broadcast from the 1964 World Series.
The carbon copy duplicating machine, usually operated by Don’s oldest children, was used for copying month end statements prepared by Nancy and mailing them to Stihl dealers. The off-set machine, operated only by Don, because it was both complicated and a mess to clean up, was used to mass produce home-made technical bulletins, price lists, sales promotions, and ad slicks for the dealers to use advertising Stihl. The Grumman canoe was used primarily for fishing but also for participating in Canoe races on Missouri’s famed Current River, discovered by Don while prowling the Ozark hills for Stihl dealers.
Crader Equipment eventually became Crader Distributing Company, Inc and hired their first salesman devoted exclusively to calling on dealers and selling Stihl. Stihl America rewarded Don’s sales success by adding more territory to his responsibility. Don, inspired by both a battery salesman who’d been a WWII pilot, and a flying Stihl distributor from Hood River, Oregon, earned his pilot’s license and purchased a small Cessna for travel throughout the extended territory. One salesman eventually became two and then there were three and subsequently, more. 1974–Crader Distributing moved out of Crader Equipment into its own building and for the first time the wholesale operation had its own facility. Eventually Don and Nancy moved out of their small nine hundred square foot home and into a home with a real dining room and a living room large enough for a grand piano. By then they had a second daughter.
The once small space in a damp basement devoted to warehousing a few Stihl saws grew to over two hundred thousand square feet of warehouse and office dedicated exclusively to Stihl. The single saw that inspired the debt and risk necessary to purchase one pallet of saws in 1959 grew to over five hundred thousand units sold in 2015.
Don found great pleasure in sharing his success with others. While he attended only one year of college, he believed a college degree to be important and wanted to help others by establishing scholarship endowments at Southeast Missouri State College, his Alma matter, Hillsdale College in Michigan, and Truman State, in Missouri. Each year, over thirty students are able to attend college through assistance from one of Don’s endowments.
As you may have surmised, there’s more to the story. And there are more stories of other distributors, each similar in tenacity and drive, but unique in style and personality. This is enough for one blog—there’ll be more.
Pictured at right is one of the last photos taken of Don. He’s proudly standing next to a Stihl tractor given to him by Stihl in recognition of his 50th year as a Stihl Distributor. The ’62 Chevy, original duplicating machine and off-set printing press are long gone, but the Grumman is still hanging in his carport. And the piano is sitting quiet in the living room. Some things are worth keeping.