ROCK FALLS – It’s a good bet that a majority of houses in the area have a trophy or plaque in them, be it for winning a golf tournament, being a most valuable or most improved player, or growing the biggest tomato in a county fair.
It’s also a good bet Economy Trophy in Rock Falls put that trophy or plaque together.
That, however, will be coming to an end soon – at least under its current business model.
Economy Trophy, 3007 Prophet Road, soon will be closing down. Jack Mulnix is co-owner of the shop with his sister, Janice Mewhirter. They cited their ages (66 and 65, respectively) as a big reason, and Mulnix has bad hips and knees that will need replacing sometime in the not-too-distant future.
The business climate amid COVID-19 was another factor.
“After the COVID year, we took an 80% loss in sales,” Mulnix said.
“There was just nothing open. Getting in to working a Monday for 4 or 5 hours and coming to working a full swing was never going to happen with either one of us. I just couldn’t get back into it. It was just time to slip out and hand the torch on to somebody else.”
Mulnix’s father, Richard, and mother, Carole, started Economy Trophy back in 1961, out of the garage at their house. An avid bowler, Richard didn’t like that he had to travel to Iowa to get trophies for bowling leagues he was in.
Economy Trophy bounced around to several locations before landing in its current spot in the late 1970s. Jack Mulnix and Janice Mewhirter bought the business in 1996 and the building where it is located in 2001.
Schools and park districts have been their main clients over the years. Mulnix graduated from Rock Falls High School in 1973, Mewhirter a year later, and a lot of the trophies outside of Tabor Gymnasium are their handiwork.
“I enjoyed coming into work and I enjoyed this business,” Mulnix said. “I enjoyed the people I met, giving out awards that nobody knew was getting them but us. Not even my own wife knew when my son was getting stuff for basketball in high school or grade school. She didn’t know it.
“Nobody knew but us. I always thought it was kind of neat we had privileged information and were trusted with it by our clientele.”
Trophies and plaques for such events as tractor pulls, demolition derbies, youth baseball leagues, 4-H clubs and motorcycle hill climbs are just a few of the other items Economy Trophy has produced.
The siblings have distinct roles. Mulnix does all of the ordering of materials, construction of trophies and waiting on customers, while Mewhirter handles engraving and plate cutting. A natural extrovert, Mulnix is also in charge of public relations, which can be a source of frustration for his quieter younger sister.
“My biggest enjoyment in here is all the people I’ve met,” Mulnix said. “Certain people that come in here, we like to talk. I’d spend 40, 45 minutes talking to somebody and she’d be like, ‘Hey, you’ve got work to do.’ I’ve met so many great people, and that’s what’s been rewarding for me.”
The heyday for Economy Trophy was in the late 1980s through 2009, according to Mulnix.
“Our backs were to the wall almost all of the time,” Mulnix said. “It was 6, 7 days a week. I remember coming in on a Tuesday morning and not going home until Thursday afternoon. I would go home to eat, but not sleep. I worked through those two nights in a row.”
“The longest I did was 18-hour days,” Mewhirter added, “and I stood the whole time.”
A decent portion of Economy Trophy’s business in 1980s and ’90s was from bowling, as packed lanes in Sterling, Rock Falls and Dixon needed a steady stream of awards.
“We’d be in here until 10, 11 o’clock at night, just building bowling trophies,” Mulnix said. “It was just a mad rush.”
Economy Trophy has also reached a few famous Hollywood stars. One customer sent a baby trophy, to commemorate newborns, to Philip McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil, on the occasion of his first grandchild. A plaque was made for actress Jennifer Garner upon her induction into the Timber Lake Playhouse Hall of Fame.
Most of the time, however, it’s for local orders, within a 50-mile radius, and there is no shortage of requests.
“This job takes a lot of mental discipline,” Mulnix said. “What needs to be done tomorrow, you’d better do it today because the pile gets higher.”
Mewhirter used to mix a little pleasure with her business, in the form of rounds of golf.
“We used to have golf courses all over,” Mewhirter said. “I would deliver their trophies and play golf there. One time at Sunset in Mount Morris, Vern Welp let me golf on men’s day. I don’t know how people felt about that, but we moved through pretty quick.”
Mulnix and Mewhirter put word out a few months ago they’d be slowing down, and eventually stepping away from their business. That’s when more orders came flooding in.
“I started announcing it May, and Morrison, it went through the town of Morrison in a hurry because I had a lot of Morrison people calling me, ‘Are you closing? Are you closing?’ " Mulnix said. “Everybody started panicking. Then the schools started calling, asking if they could put in their fall orders for soccer, golf and volleyball invitationals. Well sure. Sterling, they ordered everything through next year’s track meets in May.
“I’ve had a hard time drawing the line. Where do we end it? The Whiteside County Fair, we weren’t going to do them, but now we are because they didn’t know how to get anything engraved. I said, ‘Let’s do an inventory.’ We’ve got enough stuff and we’ll order a few things, and now we’re doing their order too.”
The baby trophies have had special meaning for Mewhirter, and she already has plans for the last one. It will go to Kallie Ann, her first great-granddaughter, due to be born any day now in the state of Ohio.
“She’s going to get the last baby trophy that we do,” Mewhirter said, “and my granddaughter’s dad actually got the first baby trophy.”
In retirement, Mewhirter plans to visit family and tend to gardening at her home. Mulnix, once he gets his hips and knees back in working order, plans to go back to work.
“I told them at Kroger’s, I’m going to be out there when I’m all healed because I’ve got to keep doing something,” Mulnix said. “I thought that would be the ideal spot because I can pack and talk at the same time with the people that come through. I see a lot of people at Kroger’s come in for a couple of items, and I’m in there for a half-hour jabbering away. I want to do something part-time, just to keep sane. Sitting around doing nothing is not what I like.”
When Mulnix and Mewhirter do finally step away, it won’t necessarily be the end of Economy Trophy. It has a loyal client list, and Mulnix is hopeful someone may take it over.
“Economy Trophy might carry on,” Mulnix said. “I’ve got a couple of buyers, one in Sterling and one in Rock Falls, interested in the customer base and the equipment. This area does have a demand for awards. We carry a 50-mile radius, and serve most of the schools in that radius. I would hope we can come to some sort of agreement where somebody can carry this on, but it’s not a sideline. This is a full-time deal, and you’ll need to have two people minimum to run it.”
One of Economy Trophy’s most loyal customers has been Don Mekeel, a former Sterling wrestling coach who also lines up awards for events at his home golf course, Emerald Hill, and local golf tournaments.
“Jack and Janice at Economy Trophy have supplied golf, wrestling, cross country and track awards for me over the past 40 years,” Mekeel said. “They always went above and beyond. They would even give me a number to reach them at church if we were short of awards for a Sunday wrestling tournament.
“Their middle name is service. I will definitely miss working with them.”