Jim McKee: Walt Behlen's other million dollar idea

2010-12-19T09:00:00Z 2010-12-19T20:10:46Z Jim McKee: Walt Behlen's other million dollar idea JournalStar.com
December 19, 2010 9:00 am

The vast Behlen Building Co. was born in Walt Behlen's basement and garage in Columbus in the 1930s.

A designed but unmanufactured soldering iron concept turned into a cornhusking device that changed into a steel-toed cap for safety shoes, moved through a number of concepts and ultimately led to the construction of grain bins and frameless steel buildings known generically as Behlen buildings.

One of the many committees working on 1962's six-month Seattle World's Fair, which would live on in the Space Needle and Monorail, was responsible for producing, promoting and selling souvenir medals for the exposition. The committee, with Northwest Historic Medals, also was charged with producing a venue for medal sales and was attracted to an advertisement for Behlen buildings. The committee also conceived of the display of a million silver dollars to attract medal purchasers and contacted Gerry Joseph, Behlen's sales manager, to see whether they might be interested in a package promotion.

The downside for the promoter was the loss of the interest on half a year's earnings on the $1 million, then about 6 percent a year. This would, however, also amount to a plus for the U.S. Treasury, which figured to gain an estimated $167 a day in earned interest.

Behlen calculated that silver dollars could be obtained at either the Denver or Philadelphia mints and that its total cost of building the structure, displays and transporting the dollars would be about $50,000 but easily could be worth that much in advertising alone -- particularly if it could sell some of the display.

With the fair's April 21 opening fast approaching, the decision to proceed was made and arrangements initiated to buy the silver dollars from the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia and take delivery at the U.S. Mint there rather than Denver, making the transportation across the country part of the promotion of the fair as well as the Behlen Co. 

Hartford Insurance Co.'s bid of only $300 to insure the transportation beat Lloyd's of London, clearing the way for the move.

At first, Behlen planned to use its own trucks, but General Motors, also seeing the advertising potential, donated two Chevrolet diesel trucks and two Cadillac escort vehicles, while Trailmobile Co. loaned two cargo truck bodies.

On April 2, 1962, the trucks backed up to the mint to load the nearly 30-ton cargo. $500,000 was loaded on each truck. Canvas bags that held 1,000 silver dollars each were loaded into steel boxes that were bolted to the floor of each truck.

The convoy set out with police escorts through towns and state patrol cars on highways while Pinkerton agents were scattered among the various vehicles. All expenses during the 13-day trip were paid for with silver dollars, often under the watchful eyes of the local press, which, along with the billboard-like trucks, generated publicity in their wake.

As soon as they reached Seattle, they bought silver dollars from local banks to replenish those paid out along the way. Meanwhile, the building had been completed with a 7-by-5-foot Behlen corn crib inside. The crib was then covered with mesh and 800,000 Morgan silver dollars, which had been sealed in $1,000 bags at the mint between 1910 and 1915, were stacked inside. Then, 200,000 1922 Peace dollars were poured loose over the bags and into a 3-inch gap between the crib and the bags. The mesh screen was removed, allowing some of the loose dollars to spill out and give the effect of a loose pile of 1,000,000 silver dollars.

Ten different medals were sold at the display, including one that depicted two pyramids of silver dollars and the space needle. Three medals also were minted in 14-karat gold, two at the U.S. Mint and one by Medal Arts Co.

In June, a young woman from California was awarded 100 silver dollars for being the millionth visitor to the display. In addition to selling official medals, visitors were offered bags of silver dollars for $1,500 with delivery after the fair closed.

After the fair, the excess silver dollars were sold back to the Federal Reserve Bank with an estimated four million people having seen them and 250 bags having been sold. Even though an uncalculated value accrued to Behlen, Hartford Insurance and General Motors during the 3,000-mile journey, Behlen calculated they ended up with a net profit of $15,000.

Although some of the medals still can be purchased for as little as a dollar or two, one of the 10-medal sets including the gold strikes sold for $19,000 in a 2007 auction, while some estimates say the silver-dollar exhibit was the most popular of the entire Seattle World's Fair.

Today, the wholesale value of common date silver dollars is about $15 each, meaning you could have made a tidy $14,000,000 profit just by keeping them for nearly 50 years.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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