BERLIN CENTER -- It was 1946, the nation was in the midst of a postwar building boom, and construction workers were lining up at Zimmerman's Pharmacy in Austintown to buy Cement Workers' Lotion.
Mixed to order at $1 for a 3-ounce bottle, it was a blend of herbs, glycerin and water invented by pharmacist Walter Zimmerman and his 15-year-old apprentice, Bob Roth.
Workers raved that it was the only thing that worked to soothe and heal their cracked, dry hands.
Zimmerman eventually sold the store, his apprentice grew up and moved away, and the formula for Cement Workers' Lotion lay dormant for decades.
But today it's back, mass produced at a small Berlin Center processing plant and distributed to more than 50,000 retail outlets all over the United States and Canada.
Growing sales: It's called Zim's Crack Creme, after Walter Zimmerman, the late pharmacist and co-inventor, who died just before the product hit the market.
And Roth, the pharmacist's former apprentice, is keeping a watchful eye on the operation.
At 71, he's semiretired but retains his role as owner and chief executive of two companies: Perfecta Products, maker of the growing Crack Creme product line; and Berlin Industries, which manufactures and distributes 36 veterinary products for horses. The two companies employ 19.
Crack Creme sales made up a small segment of the business at first, but now it's Roth's best seller by far.
He wouldn't reveal profit figures, but said sales totals have grown at least 100 percent every year since Crack Creme was introduced four years ago. It now ranks seventh among the best-selling first-aid products in the United States.
Wheelchair-bound while he recovers from a serious back injury, Roth's mind is still going full-speed and he has a hand in all aspects of the business. He spends hours in the laboratory, trying out formulas requested by other companies and working to perfect and expand his Crack Creme line.
Product line: So far there's the original liquid Crack Creme, the new cream formula, and the new nonsting diabetic formula for those who have to prick their fingers frequently to check insulin levels. And next, set to debut in the fall, is Crack Creme lip balm in tube or tin.
The two key ingredients in the Crack Creme products are arnica extract, made from a wildflower native to Montana, and myricia oil, the product of an evergreen tree native to the Dominican Republic.
Roth said he learned about arnica's ability to stimulate skin cell growth and repair and to alleviate pain when he was 14 and working with Zimmerman, his pharmacist mentor.
The myricia oil acts as an antiseptic and antifungal agent in Crack Creme and gives the product its distinctive aroma.
Growing up in Toronto, Ohio, where coal mining was a primary industry, Roth started his first business at age 8.
The young entrepreneur paid the coal companies $2 apiece for the ponies and burros used to cart coal in and out of the mines when the animals became lame from the work. He nursed the animals back to health, then sold the rejuvenated ponies and burros back to the mines for $5 apiece.
"I liked the animals, but I liked the money even better," he joked.
Start at pharmacy: Roth's family moved to Austintown when he was 10 and he started working at Zimmerman's pharmacy in his early teens. The job evolved from odd jobs to a pharmacy apprenticeship and Roth learned the rudiments of mixing prescription medications and herbal remedies.
In those days, he explained, pharmacists prepared about half of their prescription orders themselves by hand, compounding tablets and making their own capsules, suppositories, creams and liquids.
Roth graduated from Fitch High School in 1949 and earned a pharmacy degree at Ohio Northern University where pharmacognosy, the study of herbs and medicinal plants, was his favorite subject.
"It was the perfect background for what I do today," he said.
From there his career took a unusual turn, from pharmacist and drugstore owner to horse owner, trainer and racer. Moving to Florida, he spent most of his time traveling the country, competing in harness races.
He was still racing in his 60s and proudly shows a video tape of a race he won in 1997. "I was the oldest guy in the program then," he said with a grin.
Return to Valley: Meanwhile, Roth got involved in manufacturing veterinary products. He founded Berlin Industries in 1984, combining his interest in horses and his expertise in pharmaceuticals.
Crack Creme came into the picture a few years later, sometime in 1992 or 1993, when Roth's old friend Walter Zimmerman called from a vacation spot in Arizona. He had been thinking about Cement Workers' Lotion and wondered if Roth remembered the formula.
Roth remembered, and from that day on, Zimmerman badgered his younger friend good-naturedly, urging him to find a way to produce and market the formula in mass quantities.
Joel Brennan, the company's vice president of operations/U.S. sales, was among the first to market the product.
He remembers selling Crack Creme from the trunk of his car, just locally at first, then gradually reaching outside the area.
Jason Roth, 27, the owner's son and executive vice president of foreign sales and marketing, expanded Crack Creme sales into Canada last year and is heading to Europe this spring, where he'll introduce the product in eight more countries.
Roth's other children are not working with the company. His younger son, Joe, is studying law at the University of Akron, and daughter Cheryl is a drug and alcohol counselor at a juvenile court in Portage County.
Scott Gorley, a former Phar-Mor executive, is president of Perfecta Products and Berlin Industries. He said the companies will continue to grow, with plans to expand distribution in the United States and Canada and into Europe.
Roth said he's convinced that consumers everywhere will embrace Crack Creme, once they find out how well it works.
"There's 280 million people in this country," he said, "and we won't be satisfied until every one of them buys at least 10 Crack Creme products."

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