Red Ryder Exhibit Shows How Daisy's Plymouth Roots Run Deep
Exhibit celebrates iconic air gun's role in pop culture as company that originated in Plymouth celebrates 125th anniversary this year.
From an infamous leg lamp to shooting one's eye out, the 1983 film A Christmas Story has become as much of a holiday staple as candy canes for many families.
In it, young Ralphie obsesses over Daisy's Red Ryder BB gun, an iconic toy for boys in the 1940s, the period in which the movie takes place.
Daisy, the Plymouth-bred air rifle manufacturer that produced the famed — and coveted, in the case of the film — Red Ryder gun is celebrating its 125th year in its current home of Rogers, AR, some 53 years after leaving Plymouth, where it was founded. Still, Daisy’s legacy remains vivid in Plymouth as the Plymouth Historical Museum launches its A Red Ryder Christmas Story exhibit this week.
At the exhibit, visitors are able to see scenes inspired by the film and author Jean Shepherd's stories while learning some history about a world-famous company that originally opened its doors in Plymouth.
Museum hours are 1-4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, and $2 for students 6-17.
Just a block away from the museum is where it all began for the air gun manufacturer.
‘It’s a Daisy!’ — A legend is born
The Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, founded in 1882, serves as the basis for what became one of the premier gun manufacturers in the U.S.
In 1886, the Markham Air Rifle Company was founded in Plymouth, Joe Mirfin, vice president of marketing for Daisy Outdoor Products, said. Its signature product was a small wooden air gun.
At the same time, he said, Clarence Hamilton, who was on the board of the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, had been making air rifles under the name of the Plymouth Air Rifle Company, where he had designed an all-steel air gun.
His shop Mirfin said, was not equipped to manufacture that gun, but being on the board of the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, he knew the company had the dies and metal equipment to manufacture it.
Mirfin said Hamilton took the design to the windmill company with hopes he could manufacture the air gun.
“The company was, by 1888, facing bankruptcy,” Mirfin said. “They made a steel windmill that was difficult and heavy to transport and therefore could only do business within a very small diameter of Plymouth, MI.”
Hamilton, Mirfin said, handed a sample gun to the general manager of the windmill plant, who then fired it into a wastebasket and declared “Clarence, it’s a Daisy!”
"It's a Daisy!" soon became the company's trademark slogan.
Building — and selling — an American icon
Charles Bennett was hired in 1890 as a windmill salesman, Mirfin said. The air rifle reportedly was given away with premium windmill purchases and bartered for room and board for himself and his horse. Ultimately, the BB guns became more popular than the windmills.
Daisy, which became the name of the company in 1895, bought controlling stock in the Markham Air Rifle Company in 1916, Mirfin said, and in 1928, Markham became King Manufacturing.
Daisy manufactured guns for both itself and King, had the two brands primarily for product differentiation, Mirfin said, even when the products were virtually the same.
“They would sell Sears, for example, a Daisy gun, and they might sell Montgomery Ward a King gun,” Mirfin said.
This, he said, kept the two major retailers from competing directly against one another.
Mirfin credits Plymouth for the creation of — and widespread interest in — the steel air gun.
“The opportunity was there, the technology was there, and it’s always been kind of an interesting question: Why Plymouth, MI? But I believe the answer is the people that were there, the skills that were there associated with the auto industry,” he said. “The capability just existed in Michigan during that timeframe.”
Daisy moves South
Mirfin said the company did quite well in Plymouth, aided by the Red Ryder comic strip bearing the namesake of the company’s signature air rifle that captured the hearts and minds of young boys around the United States during that period.
In 1958, however, the company began relocating to Rogers, AR, to expand its manufacturing capacity bringing about 100 families out of Plymouth to a then-remote part of Arkansas.
The former manufacturing facility remained in operation for a variety of industries over subsequent decades before its eventual demolition.
The Daisy Wall — An artifact of a bygone era
A series of street names near Union Street in Plymouth pay homage to what once was. Red Ryder Drive runs into Daisy Square Parkway before meeting Windmill Drive, named after the windmill business that eventually took shape as Daisy. Overlooking the streets is a towering, isolated wall in a field of overgrown weeds, the last remaining pillar of Daisy’s Plymouth manufacturing roots.
A set of hefty support beams obscure the wall’s striking exterior from passersby along Union Street, while the plaster-stained interior faces residents of the condominium units that sprang up soon after the rest of the former Daisy factory was demolished.
The lone wall, Planning Commissioner Conrad Schewe said, was intended to serve as a wall for one of the condo units to be built by developer Joseph Freed.
In what Schewe characterized as a classic case of hindsight being 20/20, the developer was given the go-ahead to tear down all but one wall of the building in 2005. Freed, Schewe said, built units adjacent to the wall through 2006-2007, but then the housing market collapsed.
No progress had been made on the Daisy building, aside from some footings that remain in place on the property.
If the city had a chance to do it again, Schewe said, the planned unit development — or PUD — zoning document that was approved for the developer should have said the Daisy wall would be built first, then other units would follow.
“Nothing ever got built there,” Schewe said, and there is no foreseeable market demand for a building to be built there.
The wall remains, however, with many of its windows since broken out and signs of deterioration.
With efforts under way to save the wall, or repurpose it into a pavilion and outrage over what some feel is becoming an increasing eyesore, the Daisy Wall frequently is a hot-button topic at the city's Planning Commission meetings.
With condo owners, city officials, developers and preservationists now embroiled in a debate over what to do with the wall, it’s clear Daisy remains a passionate issue with residents.
Mirfin from Daisy said he recently visited Plymouth to get a taste of his company’s history here.
“I came there and I saw the wall and I saw the condos built behind where the buildings used to be,” he said. “I thought they were beautiful.”
He said several decorative touches on the condos reflect the look of the old factory, and he hopes the wall can serve the community in some way.
“With anything you do for a city, it’s got to be usable space,” he said. “Not too many people are attracted to a vertical brick wall. A vertical brick wall provides an anchor to a park, or it provides shade for a pavilion,” while visitors learn about the company’s deep Plymouth roots.