Nearly 50 years ago, R.J. Thomas Manufacturing, a little-known Cherokee farm equipment manufacturer, formed a brief, working relationship with the Cherokee County Conservation Board and its newly acquired Martin's Access (county park) east of Larrabee.
The 1959 initial mission was to build about a dozen outdoor barbecue grills for camp sites at the new, 24-acre Martin's Access.
Little did anyone know at the time that this relationship would lead to a vastly popular county park soon to exceed 300 acres, and propel R. J. Thomas Manufacturing from a small-time farm equipment manufacturer into a global presence as a world leader in the production of outdoor grills, picnic tables, benches, trash bins, bicycle racks, campfire rings, and dozens of related accessories.
The R.J. Thomas Manufacturing trademark "Pilot Rock" brand is now known throughout the world, as the Cherokee company's marketing thrust through the years has focused and thrived on negotiating contracts with city, county, state, and federal governments. Today hundreds, if not thousands of municipal, county, state, and federal parks boast Pilot Rock grills, picnic tables, trash bins, etc.
That job also forged a forever love affair the Thomas family today holds for Martin's Access. In fact, after learning the current news that the CCCB was seeking funds to acquire another 78 acres adjacent to Martin's Access, the Thomas family quickly stood up to be counted with a $25,000 donation to that land acquisition.
This amount, plus another $25,000 from the local Cherokee County Pheasants Forever Chapter, and a $20,000 donation from the Iowa Chapter of PF, has the CCCB on target to purchase the land in the near future at a total cost of $210,000.
The land's current owner, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, is holding the property for future possession by the county as the remaining monies are raised.
"Our longtime history with Martin's Access and how we got started in making grills made this (donation) a natural," said Steve Thomas, who with older brother Craig operates R.J. Thomas Manufacturing.
"We grew up out at Martin's Access. Dad (R.J.) loved the outdoors and he loved Martin's Access. I can't begin to tell you the countless hours we spent out there playing, all our family gatherings, and camping."
Martin's Access has really special memories for Steve and Craig's sister, Linda Thomas Browne, now of Manistee, Mich., who met her late husband Bill Browne, a Cherokee native, there when he worked for the CCCB. The eldest child of R.J. and Doris Thomas is Cheryl Thomas Ooten of Costa Mesa, Calif.
A chronology of how Martin's Access grew to today's 224 acres and soon to be 302 acres can be accessed at the CCCB office and CCCB director Ginger Walker, who was ecstatic to receive the Thomas family's donation last week.
The CCCB completed the original purchase of Martin's Access from Charles Martin in 1960. The survey showed 22 acres of timber and pasture at $40 per acre, 10 acres of floodland at $25 per acre, and 1.78 acres of cultivated area at $150 per acre. Subsequently, a total 24-acre tract was purchased for $1,404.70.
In 1963, the CCCB purchased 50 more acres at $60 per acre. In 1964 about seven more acres were bought at $40 per acre, and 179 square rods bought at $2 per square rod. Then, in 1966, the CCCB purchased an estimated 59 acres to the south for $5,900.
In 1970, Martin contacted the CCCB and another 25 acres were purchased for $8,883.
The final purchase, before the current one planned, occurred in 1980 when the CCCB bought three acres from Kenneth Skadeland for $3,500. The purpose was to clarify the ownership of the park's entrance and the northeast boundary.
Craig and Steve Thomas began working for their dad in 1975 while in high school when fabricating the popular grills evolved from a sideline to a major product. The company also had begun making picnic tables in 1969, while increasingly focusing on grills which were in growing demand due to their quality and durability. Soon the popularity of the tables rivaled that of the grills and the small Cherokee company's business took off in global proportions.
Originally, R.J. Thomas began his business south of Cherokee on U.S. Highway 59 in a building totaling approximately 2,400 square feet. Today, under the tutelage of Craig and Steve and their dedicated employees, R.J. Thomas Manufacturing facilities total more than 212,000 square feet.
"Some of those original grills are still standing," said Craig, while recalling the many hours he and his famiily have spent at Martin's Access through the years.
Both Craig and Steve also have fond memories of the many years working alongside R.J. Thomas's chief welder in the 1960s and early 1970s, this writer's father, the late Ray Struck, who crafted hundreds of sturdy Pilot Rock grills during his tenure there.
Now a full-fledged multi-use park, Martin's Access is popular for camping, picnicking, fishing, hunting, hiking, horseback riding, and snow-mobiling.