LeeWard Mills and Lee Wards Story

Book 7

Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, IL

History of LeeWard Mills and LeeWards

LeeWards - Elgin, Illinois

Courtesy of the Elgin Area Historical Society - Elgin, Illinois

Circa 1960s


Fink and Fried Years (1948-1969)


The Depression was in the history books, WWII had come to an end and prosperity had returned to the marketplace, so there were once again opportunities in the business arena for people with good ideas who were willing to work hard. There is no oral or written record of which member of this two-man team had the original idea of going into business together to sell war surplus nylon thread. But two brothers-in-law Sidney C. Fink and Ralph A. Fried did just that, and created one of the most successful hobby-art and needle craft businesses in the United States.


Former CEO John Popple gives this insight, “That was before my time with the firm, but it is my understanding that Fink was the merchant and Fried was the finance man and they were related by marriage. (19)   By all accounts the brothers-in-law did work well together. Sidney was the buyer who had an affinity for sales and creativity, and Ralph, the more laid back of the two, had an affinity for people and detail work which included supervising the set-up and printing of the catalog. (20)   James Fink, Sidney Fink’s second son shares, “Uncle Ralph was the inside guy at home in Elgin and dad was the outside guy who was on the road. On the corporation paperwork dad might have been listed as President, but the truth is when it came to running the business, they ran it together and there were really no titles as each had equal input into how the business was run.  Dad and Uncle Ralph worked as a team.” (21)


The exact date that Fink and Fried went into “brick and mortar” business together is unknown, but on January 4, 1947 a company named Leeward Products, LTD located at 189 West Madison Street, Chicago Illinois was incorporated with the State of Illinois with Illinois resident Ralph A. Fried as the Registered Agent. (22)


When the duo decided to open up business together they wanted a market friendly name.  Lee Anderson, President during the General Mills years, shares a story which came directly from a conversation he had with Sidney Fink: “He and Ralph were getting ready to incorporate and they were looking for market friendly name. In his jovial way, Sid said, ‘Fink, Inc. didn’t sound like a very good name. I was in a hotel in New York and spun a globe in the room and put my hand down on Leeward Islands.’  He went to the phone book and couldn’t find anyone by that name in the Manhattan phone book and he said ‘That’s it, Leeward, that is what we are going call this place.’ Sid took the name back to Ralph, he agreed, and that is how the name LeeWards was chosen.” (23)


So where are the Leeward Islands?  The Eastern Caribbean is divided into two sets of islands; those that receive the trade winds first, which are the Windward Islands and those that are a bit to the west, the Leeward Islands.  This is not a political, historical nor economic division, but a convenient reference.  They are situated where the Caribbean Sea meets the western Atlantic Ocean.  These islands are called leeward because the prevailing winds in the area blow from the east.  Thus these islands are downwind from, or leeward of, the southeastern-most Windward Island, the group of islands that first meet the trade winds. (24)   The Leeward islands of the West Indies are one of the most popular tourist travel destinations in the world, with thousands of people from all over the world vacationing there each year. (25)   If you have been to the St. Maarten (French) or the U.S. Virgin Islands, you have been to the Leeward Islands. 


The first recorded corporation document at the State of Illinois office with the name Dexter Thread Mills, Inc. and Sidney C. Fink and Ralph A. Fried’s names together on the corporation paperwork was an Articles of Amendment to the Articles of Incorporation of Leeward Products, LTD., 189 West Madison Street, Chicago, Illinois. (26)   The March 12, 1948 document stated that the name of the company would be changed from Leeward Products, LTD to Dexter Thread Mills, Inc. (27)   The purpose of the newly named Dexter Thread Mills, Inc. was “to buy, sell, and deal in at both wholesale and retail, and to job and manufacture threads and any and all other kinds of merchandise except machinery and machine tools;  to act as a broker, factor or agent in and about the purchase and sale of threads and other kind of merchandise except machinery and machine tools; to acquire, own, use, convey, mortgage or otherwise dispose of and deal in real estate or any interest therein.” (28)

LeeWard Mills Flamingo Pillow Kit

Author's Collection


After the war, Fink and Fried discovered that there was a market for nylon thread; they found that they could buy U.S. Army war surplus nylon thread because Ralph Fried had served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and had a low service number, enabling them to make the purchases. (29)   According to Roger Fink, “Uncle Ralph would get the stuff and my dad would sell it.  They had this agreement that one guy would buy and the other would sell.” (30) This was the recipe for success that would serve these two men well throughout their working relationship; simply put, their talents and areas of expertise complemented each other.  The brothers-in-law resold the thread to footwear makers and to housewives to use for crocheting thread. (31)   When the surplus had been used up, the “oral history” is that they approached Rudolph Petzelt and purchased some of the old Collingbourne Mills, Inc. inventory. 


Lustra Nylon Thread

LeeWard Mills

Advertising Card

Author's Collection


In the beginning, Fink and Fried’s main product was thread, which was sold by mail to consumers who had been unable to buy crochet threads during the war years.(32)   Their big seller during the LeeWard Product LTD years was their Lustra Nylon Thread, which came on cone-like spools.


LeeWard Mills

Advertising Card Thread and Color Chart Sample

Author's Collection


A mail order advertising card with samples of thread attached to it showed that the thread was available in the following sizes:  Size 30 (9 pound strength), Size 20 (16 pound strength), Size 10 (25 pound strength, Size 5 (50 pound strength), or Size 3 (68 pound strength) with Size 30 being the thinnest to Size 3 being the thickest. It was available in the following colors: Ecru, Dark Ecru, Pastel Pink, Yellow, Green, American Beauty (rose), Scarlet, Brown, Navy, Grey, Maize, Pastel Blue, Black, and White. 


McCall’s Needlework Magazine Summer 1949 ad reads:


“‘War Surplus Nylon Thread: Amazing Strong Thread used to sew Parachutes now available’ This genuine Du Pont Nylon Thread is practically unbreakable.  Perfect for keeping buttons on tight, mending children’s and work clothing, linens and tatting. Perfect for crocheting. Used by Air Force on parachutes because of its amazing strength and dependability.  Here is your chance to get a giant spool of 5000 feet, almost a mile of Nylon thread at the sensational low war surplus close-out price of only $1.69.  Ideal for hand or sewing machine. Just send your name and address. Specify white or black or two giant spools for only $3.29.  On arrival, deposit only $1.69 per spool ($3.29 for two spools) plus C.O.D. postage on our guarantee if you are not delighted you can return in 10 days and your money back.  Cash with order, we pay postage. Limited Supply. Write today.  Leeward Products, 189, W. Madison Street, Chicago 2, Illinois.  Dept. F-306.”(33)


Between 1954 through 1957, Fink and Fried would sponsor contests to increase the interest in their Lustra Nylon thread and for advertising purposes.


“LeeWard Mills National Nylon Crochet Contest.


Write: ‘I like to Crochet with Nylon Thread because….’ (25 additional words or less) Letters become the property of LeeWard Mills with permission of contestants to use entries for advertising purposes.  No letters will be returned.  No employee or member of LeeWard Mills is eligible to enter.  Enter as many times as you like, but the Contest closes February 28, 1954.  Winners will be notified by mail within 60 days.  Send all entries to Mary Dexter, Contest Editor, LeeWard Mills, Elgin, Illinois.  Winners will win Westinghouse Appliances.  $600.00 worth of Westinghouse Appliances.  1st Prize Roaster, Electric Blanket, Steam Iron, 2nd Prize Roster and Electric Blanket, 3rd Prize, Blanket and Iron, 4th Prize Electric Iron, 5th Prize Grill-‘n-Waffler, 6th Prize Electric Toaster, 10 more Prize Winners get Electric irons and 100 more Prize winners get Knife Sets.”  Future catalogs did not announce the names of the winners.


LeeWard Mills Catalog 16 (1954) (34)


“LeeWards National Nylon Crochet Contest


Write: ‘I like to Crochet with LeeWards Nylon Thread because….’ (25 additional words or less) and attach a contest label from a 1956/7 cone of ‘Lustra Nylon.’  Tell us what you have made with ‘Lustra Nylon’ and why you like to crochet with it.

Letters become  the property of LeeWards with permission of contestants to use entries for advertising purposes.  No letters will be returned.  No employee or member of LeeWards is eligible to enter.  Enter as many times as you like, but the contest closes March 31, 1957. Winners will be notified by mail within 60 days.  Send all entries to Mary Dexter, Contest Editor, LeeWards, Elgin, Illinois.  $1200.00 worth of Prizes – Winners will win one of 29 Elgin Watches.” Future Catalogs did not announce the names of the winners.


LeeWards Catalog 22 (Spring/Summer 1957) (35)


Sometime between 1948 and 1950, Catherine Moran joined the Fink and Fried staff with former Collingbourne Mills, Inc. employees Asa App and Anita Seeburg.  Ralph Fried’s daughter Katie Block remembers, “Catherine was my dad and Uncle’s longtime secretary and the company bookkeeper and I can remember my dad saying how important she was to the business.”(36)   Former LeeWards President Lee Anderson agrees with Katie’s assessment of Ms. Moran, “Catherine Moran was Fink and Fried’s right arm.  She did all their financials and kept them organized in those early years.  She did make the move when General Mills, Inc. purchased the company, but she was in her 70s by that point and retired shortly after GM purchased the company.”(37)   The signature of C. Moran does appear in a letter insert for the first catalog, and thanks to Katie and Lee’s information we now know who C. Moran was and her part in the company’s history.


As shared earlier, the focus of the business was selling nylon thread through mail order ads in a national magazine and word of mouth, but the focus changed when a ready-made mailing list came with the nylon allotment inventory from Collingbourne Mills, Inc.  Utilizing this list, Sidney and Ralph decided to create a catalog to showcase their thread and products that would increase the need for the thread.  Roger Fink elaborates, “There was a catalog list there with thousands of names and they got kind of lucky because people weren’t moving around as much then as they would later. So Dad and Uncle Ralph went into the hobby-art and needlework business by putting together a catalog to create ways to sell or promote thread sales.  They lost money for eight years.  I asked my dad ‘How could you stay in business for 8 years and lose money?’ He said, but each year the losses were less.” (38) 


LeeWard Mills Catalog No. 1

Author's Collection


The name Dexter Thread Mills, Inc. was not exclusively used in association with the first catalog.  Ralph and Sidney resurrected the Leeward name from their Leeward Product LTD days and called their catalog division LeeWard Mills, and in 1950 the first LeeWard Mills catalog was mailed to 25,000 households. (39) Catalog 1 featured cones of “Lustra-Nylon” thread on the cover and offered a complete line of art needlework and craft materials for rugs, punchwork, knitting, crochet, stamped goods, hobbies, crafts and notions inside.


Sidney’s son Roger emphasized that “it was all trial and error.  Dad and Uncle Ralph advertised on the radio and they didn’t sell anything.  They advertised in a magazine called McCall’s Needlework and they sold afghans and thread from there, but they never really sold enough to pay for the ad, but it was a way to get their friendship card bound into McCall’s Needlework.” (40)


Author's Collection


What is a friendship card?  Their friendship card or ‘Do you know someone who does this kind of work that might like to receive a catalog?’ was also inserted into each LeeWard Mills and LeeWards catalog for years to come. Ralph Fried and Sidney Fink did not have an advertising department; they used the friendship card method or “word of mouth” neighborhood system to spread the word about their company. Roger explains, “That was a big thing.  They had a very high response on those cards.  From those cards and the old Collingbourne list, they created a current catalog mail-order name base. Dad and Uncle Ralph felt the friendship card, more than any other form of advertisement, was the most successful way of reaching potential customers.” (41) 

As stated earlier, LeeWard Mills catalog number 1 came out in 1950 and they continually produced catalogs, but in the early years the amount of catalogs produced varied from year to year. Dexter Thread Mills, Inc.’s LeeWard Mills Catalog division would change names to LeeWards (not Lee Wards) in the Spring of 1956.  It was around 1960 that Fink and Fried consistently started producing four main LeeWards catalogs a year: Spring/Summer, Spring/Summer Sale, Fall/Winter, and Christmas Sale, and a mixture of sales catalogs. They would continue that trend after the General Mills buyout in 1969 and through the end of 1973.  Roger Fink points out the theory behind the sales catalogs of the 1950s and 1960s, “Except for Herrschners, who my dad considered to be their main competitor, LeeWards had no competition to speak of during those years so we had to compete with ourselves.  We would put out a regular catalog and then for the sale catalogs we would knock down the prices on 30 to 40% of the items in the catalog.” (42)


What was their best selling item in their mail-order catalogs during the 1950s and 60s?  Thread.  Lustra Nylon, embroidery, and various other forms of thread, but hands down, yarn became one of their best sellers. If you study some of the vintage catalogs, you could also tell what was selling by “how many times” the item re-appeared in their catalogs.  Popular customer items, such as the Traditional Poppy Quilt Kit featured in Catalog 12 in 1952, might undergo a name change over the years, but it would appear in catalogs for years and items that did not sell well were culled from the catalog within a relatively short time to make room for the latest art-hobby, craft, or needlework trend.


When two of the Fink and Fried children were asked if they knew where there might be a complete set of LeeWards Catalogs, they both said yes, there are two bound complete sets of catalogs, one for the Finks and one for the Frieds, in existence for the years of 1950 through 1969, a gift to each of their parents from the company who printed the catalogs in St. Charles, Illinois.  As of this writing, at least one, possibly both bound sets remain in the hands of family and have been put in storage for safe keeping.

LeeWards Refund Ticket

Signed by R.A. Fried

Author's Collection


LeeWards started out as a mail-order catalog business in Chicago, Illinois. They made the physical move to 615 Page Avenue, Elgin, Illinois between around 1952 and 1954.  They opened their first retail store between 1955 and 1956 calling it the “Factory Sales Room” and later the “Warehouse Store” at the Page Avenue address. They would move again in 1962 to the 840 N. State Street, Elgin, Illinois address and open up a new air-conditioned retail store, which is the one most post-war children remember visiting with their mother, grandmother, or auntie. Former CEO John Popple adds that “the 840 N. State Street store was originally part of the warehouse and headquarters and literally grew as walls were pushed back to make room for retail operations.” (43)


Roger Fink, the oldest and only Fink or Fried child to work in the family business long-term, joined the firm around February 1964 and witnessed the evolution of LeeWards first hand as a child and then as an employee. When asked why he thought LeeWards was so successful during his dad and Uncle’s time, he reports, “It was the variety of items. Dad and Uncle Ralph’s philosophy was ‘If you come to LeeWards, we are going to have what you’re looking for.’ And they did! At one time we had 272 colors of embroidery thread.  We had colors in embroidery thread that we had never sold in two years.  When I asked my dad why we kept those colors in stock he said ‘think of it as advertising, when LeeWards says they have 272 colors our customers have faith that we will have it and they will think of us when they go to buy their items, because they know they can count on us when they get into their vehicle to make the 100 mile trip to Elgin.” (44) Roger continues, “One Friday after Thanksgiving in 1967 or ‘68 my dad asked me to go out in the parking lot and count buses and there were over 70 greyhound buses from Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana and other Midwestern states filled with people purchasing goods for their churches, organizations, or personal use. It was amazing.” (45) An additional factor which led to the success of LeeWards in the 50s and 60s were the customers themselves.  The firm’s customer base was predominantly women who worked at home (housewives), but unlike their mothers and grandmothers, cleaning the home was not so labor intensive as it had been in the past.  They could do chores like their wash and also do other things.  They began to look toward other activities to add something to a day which had once been filled with work.  Simply put, there was more leisure time.


The 840 N. State Street store would remain the only LeeWards retail store in existence during the Fink and Fried years, and what a successful store it was.  At one time there were 27 cash registers in the State Street store and it was backed up by a mail order division whose inventory would be considered amazing even by today’s standards. Roger Fink elaborates, “That store was the first category “killer store” in America and that category was crafts.  They really owned that market during those years. We sold more yarn than many of the big name Department stores. (46)

Kitty Quilt Kit

Baby Quilt

Instruction Sheet Front

Author's Collection

Kitty Quilt Kit

Baby Quilt

Instruction Sheet Back

Author's Collection


Kitty Quilt Kit

Baby Quilt

Thread Kit and Quilt Care Information

Author's Collection

To an art-hobbyist, crafter, or needle art enthusiast, walking into the LeeWards Elgin, Illinois store was like waking up on your birthday to find a cake and a stack of presents waiting for you on the dining room table. The most common word expressed by customers who walked through their door was “Wow!” Row after row of items to look through and finished samples of the product so that you could see what your “kit” would look like completed, made a believer out of most; there was something of interest at LeeWards for everyone who passed through their doors. 


Can’t quite figure out how to do a stem stitch for that piece of embroidery you’re working on or how to make that Santa Claus Christmas ornament with beads?  You could walk up to any employee at that store and if that particular craft wasn’t their area of expertise, they could lead you to the employee who was an expert on that product.


Adding icing to the cake, LeeWards had stations of in-store demonstrators.  Ralph Fried’s daughter Katie Block remembers, “There were ladies who worked creating the samples for the retail store, the ones you’d see on display that enticed women to buy the kit.  Lots of times they would also do demonstrations in the factory; we called it the factory, but it was actually in the retail part of LeeWards.  They’d have different areas set up throughout the store so they’d have a stained glass area, a candlemaking demonstrator, a quilt maker, a Christmas ornament specialist, there’d be the hooked rug expert, and different artisans manned each station. The customers loved the variety of items and the friendly neighborhood feel of dad and Uncle Sid’s store.”(47)


Where did the ideas or designs for the items they sold come from in the Fink and Fried days? In some cases, they bought design kits from other manufacturers, employees from upper management to worker bees were encouraged to be on the look out for new ideas from local artisans to Midwestern craft fairs, there were overseas buying trips to places like Hong Kong, and they also utilized their own in-house designers. 


Mary Dexter and Amelia Snow were not LeeWards designers or color analysts as the catalogs in the Fink and Fried and General Mills years suggest. They were fictional names.  Like Collingbourne Mills’ Virginia Snow, Mary Dexter and Amelia Snow were marketing tools used by the “marketing team” to enhance the sales of their products to their women customers. There is no one left to share why the name Amelia Snow was used in some of the early catalogs, but it was probably picked because of its similarity to Virginia Snow of Virginia Snow Studios.  Why Mary Dexter? Some would say because the corporation name was Dexter Thread Mills, Inc., but it is more likely the Dexter name itself.  “Dexter” started with Dexter Yarn Company, Collingbourne Mills, Inc. continued its use when they bought out DYC, and LeeWards kept up the tradition with their Mary Dexter persona and on items found in their product lines, because from 1820 it has been a name associated with quality thread and products. To women who did needle art, Dexter was a name they knew and trusted. 


LeeWards did have a flesh and blood in-house designer.  She would not be the only designer LeeWards would hire over the years, but she was one of the first; her name was Byr Setsman and she came to work for Fink and Fried in the early 1960s.  (A more detailed report about Byr and the other LeeWards in-house designers can be found in the General Mills years.)


It’s late 1960s and the business Sidney C. Fink and Ralph A. Fried started is more successful than either man could have imagined the day they shook hands and decided to become business partners.  But they are getting older, and begin to look at their retirement options for a way to take a step to the left. The Milk Pail, a favorite Elgin haunt for businessmen, plays a small part in this portion of the story.  Katie Block shares, “Dad and Uncle Sid religiously went to lunch at an Elgin, Illinois restaurant called the Milk Pail. They ate lunch there, had meetings, met with clients, talked about business, and basically decompressed from their work day.” (48) Sidney Fink and Ralph Fried met with the men from General Mills, Inc. there and, as history notes, in 1969 LeeWards left family hands and became a division of General Mills, Inc. and a new “more retail store orientated vs. catalog driven” era began for LeeWards.