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A Mainland tale: Gil’s Red Wiggle Worms

By Staff | Jan 6, 2014

LAHAINA – This column has a policy of not using the pronoun “I” or writing about personal experiences. At the New Year’s anniversary of the defunct family business Gil’s Bait Co., it is time to offer some insights into life on the Mainland for those here who have never been in the Midwest.

With apologies to Maui News columnists Ron Youngblood, who likes to write about his Harley but in an interesting way, and Kathy Collins, who seems to be able to write about anything personal, here goes.

Imagine gangly high school boys and girls sitting in front of a flat table in a back yard under a maple tree (not kiawe) counting out 50 red wiggle worms. Customers would bring the bait to places like Fish Lake or Lake Geneva in Wisconsin – not to fish for akule or opakapaka, but for blue gills, crappies and bass.

The business got started when Dad – whose first name was Gilbert – started gathering worms in a place you would not want to go and selling them at a place called Maple Lake (apparently after the tree). Soon, demand outstripped supply.

Dad began ordering big boxes of worms shipped in from a supplier in Tennessee and delivered by the post office to the family garage – probably like the same one Steve Jobs got started in. Alas, no stock windfall followed.

The product was “Gil’s Red Wiggle Worms, Fresh Delivery Guaranteed.”

The Tennessee worms were poured on tables and packed in pint-size cans purchased from the American Can Co.

After the kids packed the worms, this columnist pounded home the lids that included tiny holes so the worms could breathe. Dad was a tool and die-maker and developed a machine to stamp in the holes.

He also developed a special formula (mostly cornmeal), so the worms would have something to eat if they were in for a long stay. Customers would later marvel at the huge worms they would have for their hooks if their can happened to be on a shelf for a long time.

Mom took a yellow label with red lettering, slapped on two daubs of glue and affixed the labels. Dad was also the delivery man, delivering product to sports stores around Chicago. Best customer was Mages, with six stores subsequently acquired by Sportmart.

Dad had no marketing expertise and no son at the time who had gone to journalism school and studied advertising. I was still playing baseball down the corner between putting on the lids.

The future columnist was squeamish about packing worms. Not sister Joan, though, who perished at 33 and never would see her daughter remarry on Maui last week.

Gil’s Wiggle Worms did have potential for a family bonanza. Dad looked at property outside of Chicago well before the explosion of suburbia. He couldn’t even afford the very cheap land. The land is now worth millions, the site of a fancy shopping center.

The worm business faded away; the son worked as a printer’s devil, in a paint store, at Western Tire and Auto putting on seat covers (Cadillacs were the worst – big, bulky back seats that had to be pulled out and placed on a bench), and worked nights as a freight handler, all to finance one’s way through college (University of Illinois tuition and board and room, $500 a semester).

The boy who was squeamish about handling worms became a reporter for Business Week in Chicago, interviewed Martin Luther King once, edited a four-color magazine for a major corporation for eight years, became a house husband (a decision made along Kaanapali Parkway on vacation one year), came here 27 years on vacation, bought a home in 2001, did PR for “A Taste of Lahaina” and Lahaina Galleries, started a column in Lahaina News in 2006, published three books and is working on more, and started a popular Kaanapali blog.

So take that, Kathy Collins and Ron Youngblood, and fans of this column. That is all the personal stuff you are ever going to get. Happy New Year! Keep smiling.