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Ant farm inventor's secret: perseverance

In an industry where toys are a hit if they last more than a single season, the ant farm's success rates right up there with the Etch-a-Sketch and the Slinky. By CNBC's Jim Goldman
/ Source: CNBC

As the country celebrates its birthday, a small slice of Americana will celebrate its 50th anniversary in business. And in the rough-and-tumble, competitive toy business, this kind of longevity is really remarkable. You may not know the company, or its 92-year-old founder, but you do know the product: Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm.

He's not a movie star, but he is something of an American legend. And while you may not know him, you do know his invention.

“When we first made this, I didn't know what the hell ants were,’ said 92-year-old Milton Levine, better known as "Uncle Milton," who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his original ant farm.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be 50 years,” he said. “Never. And here we are.”

In an industry where toys are a hit if they last more than a single season, the ant farm's success rates right up there with the Etch-a-Sketch and the Slinky.

“Anybody you talk to,” said Levine, “especially guys your age: ‘Did you have an ant farm? Sure I had an ant farm.’ And now grandparents are buying them for their kids. Fifty years is a long time!”

The story of the ant farm stretches back to a southern California backyard patio in 1956. Mesmerized by an ant colony, and looking for something to sell, the light-bulb went off, with sales taking off just as fast.

“Immediate!!,” said Levine. “I mean it was faster than immediate.”

So fast, that he sold a million ant farms that first year in business — and 25 million more since.

“Well, I was damn pleased, I'll tell you that,” he said.

And so are the experts, like California Academy of Sciences entomologist Brian Fisher.

“You can actually observe things that no one else can observe,” according to Fisher, who says the ant farm turns kids onto science. “It’s a real toy that bridges the gap between our material world and the outside world.”

With every farm, Levine has to ship the ants. And the company does it by packing 25 to 40 ants in tiny plastic vials. Do the math, that's something like a billion ants sold since the ant farm first hit the market. Where does the company get all those ants?  Levine contracts with an ant wrangler in Utah who sucks the ants out of the ground, and fills the company's ant orders every week.

Today, Milton's son Steve runs the business, investing big in research and development, trying to come up with the company's next big hit

“Our niche is science and nature toys,” said Steve Levine. “And even though it's a small niche in the bigger industry, it's still our niche.”

Milton Levine no longer has a hand in day-to-day operations at his company.

“Now all I do is take a nap in the afternoon,” he said.

But he makes no secret of his recipe for success.

“I'm gonna give you a secret because you are a nice boy,” he said. “My slogan is: ‘Perseverance is the secret of success and procrastination is the secret of failure.’ That's your secret.”

And his other secret? Proving that you can make a mountain out of an anthill.