Cornflake Crusade

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“Without the help derived from this fertile incubator of ideas, the great food industries of Battle Creek would never have existed. They are all direct or indirect outgrowths of Mrs. Kellogg’s experimental kitchen, established in the fall of 1883.”

Ever since Kellogg had been a young intern at Bellevue Hospital, with his oatmeal gruel, his crackers and apples, on which he gained seventeen pounds at a total cost of sixteen cents per day, the criteria had existed in his mind for a good breakfast dish. He visualized a cereal in a form that would have good keeping qualities, require little or no preparation, be attractive in flavor, light and easy on the digestion.

One answer to the need made an obscure and local appearance in the year 1893. It was Shredded Wheat and appeared, not at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, but in Denver, the creation of Henry D. Perky. Perky was dogged with stomach trouble. An expansive, promotive type, he tackled “the food problem” for the same deeply personal reasons which had moved a long line of his predecessors.

The Doctor had a sanitarium patient in 1893-94, who received from a friend some of the little whole wheat mattresses which Henry Perky was peddling in Denver. She showed them to the Doctor. The Doctor tried the biscuits out on his ready-made panel of experts, the sanitarium’s own gastric cases. Interested, Dr. Kellogg dropped off at Denver on his way to the West Coast in the spring of 1894. Perky agreed to send Kellogg a shredding machine and to stop at Battle Creek on his way to Boston where he intended soon to establish a plant. But the Denver inventor decided that it was dangerous to let the ingenious Battle Creek doctor have the machine. Doctor Kellogg never saw it again, or Perky.

Just what exchange of idea or inspiration occurred between the two inventors at the Denver meeting, we are not likely ever to know. According to Dr. Kellogg’s account, Perky got the idea from him, then and there, of baking his product until the starch of the wheat was thoroughly dextrinized.

First from Boston, then from Worcester, and finally from Niagara Falls, came the increasingly familiar little pillow-shaped biscuit in a carton which proclaimed the value of the secret of shredding by listing 43 patents on a side panel, a warning to all evil men who might be tempted to imitate it.

Dr. Kellogg vowed that he would find a substitute of his own. In an account which the Doctor related many times, the solution of the problem came to him as a result of a dream. Said the Doctor:

“I prescribed zwieback for an old lady, and she broke her false teeth on it. She demanded that I pay her ten dollars for her false teeth. I began to think that we ought to have a ready-cooked food which would not break people’s teeth. I puzzled over that a good deal.

“One night about three o’clock I was awakened by a phone call from a patient, and as I went back to bed I remembered that I had been having a most important dream. Before I went to sleep again I gathered up the threads of my dream, and found I had been dreaming of a way to make flaked foods.

“The next morning I boiled some wheat, and, while it was soft, I ran it through a machine Mrs. Kellogg had for rolling dough out thin. This made the wheat into thin films, and I scraped it off with a case knife and baked it in the oven.

“That was the first of the modern breakfast foods.” (Forgetting Shredded Wheat, of course.)

Dr. Kellogg, according to his custom, was reticent on the subject of the contribution made by his younger brother during this period.

“He took most of the glory for the work I did,” said W. K. Kellogg years later. “I have never claimed any glory—the Doctor has claimed that.”

The commercial production of flaked breakfast food began in 1895 in a little barn behind the sanitarium main building. The word spread that wily Dr. Kellogg out at the San had hit upon a magic process which would turn a bushel of wheat worth sixty cents into a fascinating breakfast food with a retail value of about $12.

Despite threats and promises, ethics, affidavits, door guards, employee contracts, the courts, the sheriff, and the county jail, details of the process leaked out. Eventually all Battle Creek went on a flaked food binge. W. K. Kellogg and George C. McKay, a trusted lieutenant, once figured that 44 breakfast food concerns started up in Battle Creek during the early igoo’s. Whole families put their lifetime savings into a fanciful trade name, a recipe, and some old machinery. Manufacturing was started in sheds, even tents, and cappers met the trains to accommodate any stranger who would like to take on some stock in a food factory.

A tent on a hillside, a make-do shack, the half-finished framing of new dwellings, the skeleton walls of partially constructed factory buildings—that was the visible aspect of the new Battle Creek. At night the stranger’s rest was disturbed by the flash from a lantern, the bang of a hammer, the snarl of a crosscut saw in the hands of an indefatigable camper building himself a home.

There was an air of New England about the fine old homes along the avenues, a bizarre touch of Indian Territory about the tent colonies. Reaching for a way to express his impressions, a visitor said of Battle Creek:

“It looks as though a cyclone had dumped Guthrie, Oklahoma, down on Boston Common.”