There have been entire books written about how the cereal industry got its start in Battle Creek. Here’s the short and snappy version: The story always starts with the Seventh-day Adventists. Founder and prophet Ellen White received a holy message: Create a healthy living institute in Battle Creek.
It had a slow start, but church leaders had been fostering the talents of a young Adventist by the name of John Harvey Kellogg.
John grew up to be a character who was larger than life, an accomplished surgeon who always wore a white suit and knew all the latest trends in the medical community. But the showman needed a smart business manager and he brought on his younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg.
W.K. Kellogg had a keen business sense -- he didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, so he went to work in sales from a young age. He had a knack for organizing and improving a business model, even if he was selling brooms.
Historians agree, the brothers didn’t get along. John was overbearing and W.K. was shy and resentful. Together, though, they turned Battle Creek into a destination for health seekers from around the world. Before it was “Cereal City,” the small town became known as “Little Chicago” as thousands flooded in, looking for the Battle Creek Cure.
The Sanitarium program was modern in its approach: exercise, take time for self care, drink lots of water.
Food was a big issue, though. It may sound a little funny now, but dyspepsia was a hot topic back in the 1800s. Constipation, upset stomachs and bloating were common as Americans consumed a diet heavy in starch and animal fat.
The Sanitarium offered a vegetarian menu, free of additives, in honor of its Seventh-day Adventism roots. It wasn’t always the most palatable of food, though. One woman broke her dentures on a biscuit.
Dr. Kellogg wanted food that was easy to both chew and digest, so he enlisted his brother and started to experiment.
A lot of inventions came out of the Kellogg kitchen, including peanut butter and an early version of probiotic pills. The one that changed America, though, was flaked cereal.
The record gets fuzzy around how cereal was actually invented, but most historians agree: both brothers were involved.
John would pour wheat mixture into a roller while W.K. would scrape it off with a knife. It never became crispy, though.
The secret ingredient turned out to be time. The Kellogg brothers left in the middle of an experiment, abandoning the mixture overnight. It was stale once they got back, but they put it through the rollers and cooked it anyway.
The flakey result was exactly what Dr. Kellogg wanted and he started serving it at the Sanitarium.
W.K. saw room for improvement, though. He kept experimenting, using corn, which was cheaper. He also added sugar and malt, to make it sweeter. Dr. Kellogg objected, and W.K. branched out to start the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co.
W.K. wasn’t the only one who saw the profitability of cereal. Sanitarium patient C.W. Post was inspired to start his own food company. His first product was Postum, a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The Post company went on to create Grape-Nuts, followed by Elijah’s Manna (later rebranded as Post Toasties).
Cereal was cheap to make and easy to market -- so simple to prepare, even a child could do it.
The turn of the century saw a Cereal Boom in Battle Creek. At one time, there were more than 100 companies registered in the city.
Not all of them were legitimate. Some were shell corporations and others would buy cereal from off the shelf, repackage it, and then sell it again
The Cereal City also pushed advertising into a new era. C.W. Post convinced Americans that breakfast was the most important meal of the day and W.K. Kellogg started cereal box prizes. During the Depression, W.K. poured money into his advertising department when other companies cut costs.
While W.K.’s company soared, the Sanitarium sank. Despite Dr. Kellogg’s objections, the board invested in an extravagant tower that was finished right before the stock market crashed in 1929. John left Battle Creek and the building became a hospital for World War II soldiers.
Three of those World War II patients would later become Senators and they advocated to turn the hospital into a federal building. It is now the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center.
Out of all of those cereal companies, only two remain in Battle Creek: Post Consumer Brands and Kellogg Co.
Battle Creek is still the Cereal City, though. This is where C.W. Post and the Kellogg brothers are buried. It was in Battle Creek where Malitta Jensen and Mildred Day invented Rice Krispy Treats and Vernon J. Herzing came up with Honey Bunches of Oats. When the wind blows from the direction of the Post factory, the city smells like Fruity Pebbles.
Every year, we celebrate the spirit of Cereal City with the Cereal Festival. It’ll be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 13, 2020. Grab some free cereal and sit down with us at the World’s Longest Breakfast Table.