It’s been an unusually wet couple of months here in Colorado. In fact, the National Weather Service says we had the wettest May in recorded history. After several years of intense drought, I’m grateful for all this rain, at least intellectually. However, summer is my favorite season of the year and I welcome the sun and heat with open arms.
Marvin and I took advantage of the first dry weekend in weeks (or so it feels), by going on a treasure hunt.
This weekend, the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation held their semi-annual used book sale on the north lawn of the main branch of the Denver Public Library. The sale, which started Thursday and ran through today, helps fund a bunch of worthy causes, including the children’s summer reading program, adult and child literacy programs, and technology assistance training for adults. Each year, the foundation also purchases thousands of new books, CDs, and DVDs for the library’s general collection. The sale is a bargain for anyone who loves to read, with books selling for as little as fifty cents.
Every couple of years, when my bookcases get so full that I can’t fit anything more on them, and my office starts to resemble a horder’s nest, I pare down my collection of books. I donate anything that’s badly worn, or that I don’t plan to read again, to my local library for their sale, and then I enjoy the process of building my collection back up.
Anyway, Marvin and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours digging through the stacks, and came away with a handful of books, as well as several vintage CDs and a DVD boxed set of the fourth season of Smallville. We didn’t find everything we’d hoped for, and our haul wasn’t as large as in previous years, but we had fun. Afterward, we enjoyed a picnic lunch outside the Denver Art Museum, and left satisfied that the twelve dollars we’d spent had gone to a good cause.
I love to read and I love libraries, so every summer when my local library posts signups for its summer reading program, I’m one of the first in line. I started doing this when my kids were small, ostensibly to encourage them in their reading efforts (“Look at the great prizes you can earn, just for reading books!”), but the truth was, I was just as excited as they were.
Over the years, my kids earned free books, fast food coupons, and amusement park tickets. One year, my daughter even won a portable television (Because there’s nothing like TV to encourage a kid to read more books).
My haul was less impressive: bookmarks, a magnifying glass, discount coupons to the farmer’s market and a local thrift store. My kids felt kind of sorry for me and offered to share the personal pizzas and sodas they’d won, but I told them I wasn’t doing it for the prizes.
Then, as now, I was doing it for the love of reading, although I must admit I enjoy the competition. Some years I read the lists the librarians post for the participants, and some years I go free range and choose my own selections, but every year there’s a little voice in the back of my head that this year may be the year I win something good (or at least out read the competition).
The theme of the 2015 Loveland Public Library summer reading program is heroes. This means that in addition to reading traditional books, we get credit for reading graphic novels (woo hoo!) and each participant is assigned an avatar when he or she signs up (mine’s Batman). In addition, participants get extra points for doing volunteer work and attending cultural and community events over the summer, so they can experience being a real life hero.
If you spot me around town this summer, stop and say hello. I’ll be the nerd with a Batman badge reading David Copperfield in the supermarket checkout line.
Today I’m going to tell you a story about a man named Tony Beaver. It’s an old story — a little known American folktale — in the tradition of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry. It originated in the logging camps of West Virginia over two hundred years ago, and was the inspiration behind my company’s name.
While I’m doing this, you get a treat (or at least a picture of a treat, since you aren’t actually in the room with me). But you can imagine it. After all, what’s story time without a snack.
THE LEGEND OF TONY BEAVER
Once upon a time there was a giant lumberjack named Tony Beaver. This lumberjack, who happened to be the cousin of legendary folk hero, Paul Bunyan, lived in the mountains of West Virginia. He stood eighteen feet tall in his stocking feet, palled around with a pair of giant oxen named Hannibal and Goliath, grew watermelons the size of large appliances, and invented a host of useful objects, including matches, clothespins, and peanut brittle.
This all took place during the early nineteenth century, when mountain life was challenging, and it took ruggedness and a certain amount of creativity just to survive. Tony Beaver had both. Beaver, who operated a mining camp along the bank of the mythical Eel River, had stockpiled a large quantity of jumbo-sized peanuts. These peanuts, which Beaver had grown himself, were of the highest quality but much too large for the average person to handle. Although disappointed that he could not sell them, Beaver refused to let these giant goobers go to waste, choosing to store them until he could figure out what to do with them.
The following spring was especially rainy in the state of West Virginia. In fact, it rained for several days without stopping and the Eel River rose to alarming heights. Soon, it threatened to overflow its banks and flood a nearby village. The people of this village, known as Eel River Landing, were terrified and begged Tony Beaver to help them.
“Help us stop this flood,” they cried, “or our entire village will be wiped out!”
Tony Beaver sprang into action. “All hands report for duty!” he yelled.
When the villagers were assembled before him, Beaver instructed them to load his entire stockpile of peanuts into wagons and haul them down to the river.
“Shell them as fast as you can,” he said, “and dump them into the water.”
Then he ordered his logging crew to grab a hundred barrels of molasses from their mess hall and dump these into the river as well.
The people did as they were told, and the river roiled and foamed, mixing the peanuts and molasses into a thick, golden brown mass. As the mass thickened, the river slowed, until it finally stopped altogether.
“Hooray!” The people cheered. “Tony Beaver has saved our town.”
The next morning the sun came out, and within days the river was back to its pre-flood level. However, the villagers had a new problem.
The mass of peanuts and molasses Tony Beaver had used to stop the flood had hardened into a dam, completely blocking the Eel River. This was bad news for the villages farther downstream that depended on the Eel as their water source, as well as Tony Beaver’s lumber crew, who used it to float their logs to the sawmills.
Once again, the people gathered on the bank of the river and once again, they sent for Tony Beaver.
Tony stared at the dam for a minute, and then he broke off a big piece and put it in his mouth. Then he broke off another piece and handed it to a little boy.
“Try it,” he said.
The little boy took a bite, and then grinned from ear to ear. “Tastes like candy!” he cried.
Then Tony Beaver broke up the candy dam with his giant ax, the villagers ate their fill of the world’s first peanut brittle, and everyone agreed it was “dam good.”
As some of you know, I recently tried my hand at running a candy business, which is the reason it’s taken me so long to get this blog started. I set this site up two years ago, and then devoted all my energy to blogging on my company website and promoting the business.
My company was called Tony Beaver Peanut Brittle. This is was our logo:
The handsome guy with the barrel is Tony Beaver. Some people think he looks a little like Gaston, from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is what you get when you save money by hiring a high school student to design your logo and don’t figure out who it reminds you of (it had been a few years since we’d seen the movie) before you print up all your marketing materials, purchase thousands of labels, pay a professional to design a kickass website, and order business cards and big magnetic signs for your car.
Anyway, my husband, Marvin, and I were sitting around one cold January day, having coffee together and enjoying a few last pieces of homemade Christmas peanut brittle, when the following conversation (or something like it) took place:
Marvin: “This stuff is really good. I can’t believe a lot of people don’t like peanut brittle.”
Me: “I never liked it either until I perfected THE RECIPE.”
Marvin: “Most peanut brittle isn’t very good. It’s hard, tastes burnt, and sticks to your teeth.”
And then we looked at each other and the proverbial light bulb went on:
We could change all that.
Or I could. Marvin was busy with his band and other activities, and knew nothing about making candy. So I called my old friend Diana, who knew nothing about candy making either, but was very enthusiastic about the idea of starting a business with me and shared my love for all things sweet. Actually, she wasn’t that old. But our friendship dated back to high school and that covered a lot of history. Over the years we’d pursued our individual careers (writing and editing on my part, teaching on hers) and we’d tried several business endeavors together, including a short stint delivering singing telegrams (in rabbit suits, no less!).
We spent the next six months developing our product, wading through red tape, filling out paperwork, and acquiring the various licenses and permits necessary to do business (thirteen, not counting special events).
Then Marvin, Diana, and I spent six more months making, packaging, and selling candy. And losing money. Big time.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. We spent every weekend from July through December at farmer’s markets, craft shows, Oktoberfests, and Christmas bazaars. And people loved our candy. Hopefully they loved us too (We gave away lots of free samples — how can you not love people who give you free candy?). And we sold our products at a local bakery and online through our very own awesome website.
BUT . . .
By the time we paid all the craft show entry fees, farmer’s market commissions, and money to the commercial kitchen, we were making about fifty cents an hour. And that was on a good day. We could have doubled our prices, but then we wouldn’t have been competitive. So we chalked it up to experience, held a fire sale (half off!) at a local church, and donated over six hundred pounds of peanut, almond, and cashew brittle to a local homeless shelter on Christmas Eve. Ho, ho, ho.
Then I went back to work on my book and Diana moved to Florida.
The other day I found a plastic tub in the corner of my office and discovered five unopened packages of Tony Beaver Peanut Brittle I didn’t know were there. Marvin opened one of them, and that sucker was still fresh after all these months (And we never even used preservatives!).