- Historic Sites
A history of the food reformers and cereal kings who made Battle Creek the center of a revolution in Americans eating habits
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
W. K. “retired” on numerous occasions, a little drama of renunciation and withdrawal which was played out in a series of repeat performances between 1924 and 1939. In 1946 W. K. declined re-election to the board of directors, but, as it said in his obituary, “retained an active interest in the administrative affairs of the Company.” There is reason to suppose that the passing of the nonagenarian, when it finally occurred, brought relief and refreshment to the company’s active management. The best evidence of this is the continued and accelerated progress of the firm.
“Nothing succeeds,” as John Finley once said, “like successors.”
Unlike Doctor John, W. K. had a promising son in the business, a point of prime importance to the founder of an industrial dynasty. Lenn Kellogg worked in the various Kellogg businesses and showed a particular gift for arousing a crusading enthusiasm at sales meetings. But he could not make a go of it with his crochety father and retired from the business. Another son, Karl, became a physician and spent his life in California. Disappointed, the aging capitalist tried to bring a grandson into line for his succession but the young man took his own life at the age of 26.
W. K. Kellogg over his middle years made many small-to-moderate-sized gifts—say from $50 to $5,000— to individuals and good causes, often anonymously, sometimes with the advice of his friend Arch Shaw. Later there came a program of larger benefactions. It became an organized procedure after 1925 when the Fellowship Corporation was established. The corporation surveyed needs and opportunities. In 1930 the W. K. Kellogg Foundation was organized and took up the task of awarding large sums on a broad pattern.
W. K. had a particular aversion to being tagged as a philanthropist. One does not need to look far for the reason. Once as a witness in a lawsuit the Doctor was asked to state his business. He could have made many answers. But he saw them all as one:
“All my life my business has been philanthropy.”
When W. K. gave the Youth Building to Battle Creek he refused a newspaper request for a picture and a story.
“Print the Doctor’s picture,” he said, sourly.
After an extended parley, W. K. gave way on the story. But he made this a condition: “Agree not to call me a philanthropist.”
The bulk of the Kellogg corn flake fortune passed to the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which supported a wide variety of programs: tuberculosis control in Detroit; diagnosis of speech defects in children; the construction of schools, pools, hospitals and gymnasiums, camps and playgrounds; the enrichment of life in rural areas. The foundation is among the largest in the United States.
Without denying the possibility that W. K. was moved by a simple, warm-hearted desire to extend a helping hand to his fellow man, one cannot but notice other circumstances which help at least to explain a benevolence which was atypical. First of all was the great unsolved problem of gerontology—You Can’t Take It With You. W. K. felt, certainly, no disposition to leave $50,000,000 to the family with which he had quarrelled and feuded and which he had already largely survived—especially as he had long before made what he considered to be adequate provision for them. He could not, in good conscience, see the corn flake millions gobbled up by the government. He certainly could not allow Doctor John Harvey to go down in history as the humanitarian Kellogg.
Meanwhile at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the search for The Simple Life became one of our glossier folkways.
The local Chamber of Commerce estimated in the mid-Twenties that the health seekers were worth $6,000,000 annually to Battle Creek. Many patients came for two weeks and stayed for the rest of their lives. Dr. Kellogg’s skill as a host was proverbial. He was, among so many other things, a superb hotel man. Dr. Kellogg’s Monday evening parlor lectures grew more popular than ever, as he discussed the questions submitted by anxious patients. Was psyllium seed better than agar-agar? What did Dr. Kellogg think of Horace Fletcher’s advice to chew every bite 32 times, one chew for each tooth?
“The decline of a nation,” the Doctor would begin, rising on his toes, and teetering, “commences when gourmandizing begins. Rome’s collapse was well under way when slaves were thrown into the eel-pots to increase the gamey flavor of the eels when they came upon the table.”
Dressed all in white, a fashion he adopted some time after 1902, even to white shoes, white overshoes, hat, overcoat, gloves, and spectacles, the Doctor explained that the white costume transmitted the healthful light of the sun. It became a kind of trade mark.
In the grand dining room a dietician cruised the premises to help the puzzled customers choose their menus wisely and check off their calories. Often she had to raise the restraining hand of science against ravenous appetites which might produce eructations or anabolic toxins. The dietician could also point out who that was over there—Upton Close by the wall, and Upton Sinclair on the other side, with his special milk and honey concoction. She knew Emil Fuchs, Henry L. Doherty, Sir Wilfred and Lady Grenfell, just back from Labrador. There was Madame Marie Sundelius of the “Met”; and that, of course, was Henry Ford in the quiet gray suit, a buckwheat blossom in his lapel.
“I like Mr. Kellogg’s philosophy,” the inventor of the high, black, spidery Model-T car declared, and sent a bag of water-ground buckwheat flour from his own gristmill over to Dr. Kellogg.