The Stream Machine turned into a cash dream for three Rogue Valley rafting buddies 20 years ago.
An astute observation, followed by a homemade experiment, eventually produced a quirky water-squirting device that became a staple for river rafters — and an economic boon for Bill Bednar, Dorian Corliss and Michael Neyt.
The business was grossing about $3 million in sales annually when Bednar, a Medford resident who became the sole owner, sold the company to a pair of brothers-in-law from Chicago in 2000.
"All it is is a big syringe," says Neyt, of Jacksonville. "Dorian is really the founder of it."
While on a rafting adventure in Northern California in the late 1980s, Corliss, now 60, encountered a crude soaker that was the genesis for the Stream Machine, originally called the Dipstik.
"I saw these guys with what looked like a homemade syringe," says Corliss, of Grants Pass. "They were spraying these long streams of water. I thought what a unique idea to have fun."
Corliss made a prototype and took it on a float down the lower Rogue in 1990 with a group that included Neyt and Bednar.
While the rafters were camping at Hewitt Creek across from Zane Grey's former cabin, Bednar's young daughter and a friend were having fun playing with the bulky 4-foot squirt gun. When another group of rafters came floating by, someone in the group grabbed the two pieces of PVC pipe with a hole in the front cap and a battery on the other end to plug the pipe and squirted the boat.
It got a big laugh and planted the idea that a product like this could make money.
When Bednar and Neyt got home, they each built a model and compared their designs. They invited Corliss to join the venture, which they named Water Sports Inc.
They bought a bunch of PVC pipe and quickly discovered a 1-inch-diameter pipe would fit perfectly inside a 11/2-inch pipe. They filed a groove on the inside pipe and put an O-ring around the groove to create a piston-like drive for compression, drilled holes and glued a cap on the ends. They fabricated about 300 squirters.
Bednar and Neyt took their new discovery along the Rogue River outside Grants Pass one weekend and had little difficulty selling all 300 for $20 each.
"Literally, just about everyone who saw it wanted one," says the 64-year-old Neyt. "When we sold all those in a weekend, I knew we had a winner."
The three men invested about $10,000 each and began assembling the squirt guns — which were named Dipstiks — in Bednar's garage on the weekends. The first year they sold about 5,000 Dipstiks.
It started becoming a family burden working every weekend on their second job. Neyt and Corliss were bankers and Bednar a financial planner.
The next year, they contracted with SPARC Enterprises in Grants Pass to assemble the parts into the working models.
By that time, Bednar saw the potential and wanted to expand marketing and sales. Neyt and Corliss had reservations about going to the next level and both eventually sold their shares of the business to Bednar.
"I'm a sales guy," says Bednar, 59. "I was the ultimate dreamer."
Corliss departed the company first with about a $170,000 lump sum. About six months later, Neyt exited with a deal that called for a royalty of about 10 cents each and a smaller cash payment.
Bednar had to change the name from Dipstik to Stream Machine in 1992 when threatened with a lawsuit by someone who had the name trademarked.
Bednar hit some hard times in the mid-'90s, but a local benefactor bailed him out with a cash infusion. He overcame the financial setback and the company's sales soared. Some of his major customers were Costco, Fred Meyer and Bi-Mart.
At one point, he employed 160 people, producing 1,000 Stream Machines an hour in a Medford factory. He sold the company for $2.4 million.
The three veteran river rats left a lasting legacy with the Stream Machine.
"It's changed rafting on the river," says Neyt. "Before, with a bucket of water, you had to get within five feet of a boat to get people wet. With this you could be 60 to 70 feet away. Now when you're out there, you see one just about in every boat."
Frank Silow is a Mail Tribune sports reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.