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The Road to Wellness

 The Story of C. W. Post and the Cereal Industry 

In 1891 an unsuccessful businessman with chronic health problems arrived at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.   In less than a decade Charles William Post was a multi-millionaire running an international business empire.

During his stay at the Michigan health spa, Post sampled the revolutionary "health foods" developed in the Sanitariums's experimental kitchens -- including a flaked wheat cereal.  Although Dr. John Harvey Kellogg can be credited with developing the ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, the doctor intended it solely for the use of his current and former patients.  Kellogg made no attempt to market his products widely or to profit from his discoveries.

Always the entrepreneur, C. W. Post saw a vast potential market for the grain-based health foods.  Four years after he left the San, Post began selling his own cereal product -- and started his million dollar walk down the "Road to Wellville." 

The Early Years

On October 26, 1854, C. W. Post was born into a comfortable middle class family in Springfield, Illinois.  His father, C. Rollin Post, was a successful agricultural implement and grain dealer.  A friend and neighbor of Abraham Lincoln, the elder Post treasured the memory of serving in the honor guard which accompanied the slain president's body back home.

Young Charlie Post was educated in the Springfield public schools until the age of thirteen when he entered the Illinois Industrial College at Urbana in 1868.  Three years later he left school and joined the exotic Springfield Zouave army regiment.  He served with his company for two years, including a stint under General Phil Sheridan enforcing the martial law declared after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

After leaving the army in 1874, he and a childhood friend journeyed around the west and eventually opened a hardware store in Independence, Kansas.  In November  he returned to Springfield to marry his childhood sweetheart, Ella Letitia Merriweather.

For the next six years the new bride lived with the groom's parents while he traveled as a salesman for various agricultural implement firms.  It was during this period that Post honed his skills as a salesman.  It was also during this period of irregular schedule and diet that he first experienced the digestive difficulties which haunted him for the rest of his life.

By 1880 Post returned to Springfield and founded the Illinois Agricultural Works to manufacture farm machinery of his own design.  A prolific inventor, Post's first patent was for a seed planter.  He later patented improvements on a cultivator, harrow, hay-stacker and a sulky plow.  His creations were not limited to farm implements.  He also developed "scientific suspenders," a player piano roll and a prototype wheel for a safety bicycle.

The Agricultural Works experienced financial problems when a local banker made unauthorized loans in the company's name.  The strain caused by the resulting debts exacerbated Post's health problems.  In 1885 he suffered a complete collapse and was forced to leave his business for several months.

Doctors recommended a warmer climate to aid his recuperation.  In early 1887 C. W. Post, with several other members of his family, purchased a 200-acre ranch near Fort Worth, Texas.  Most of the family moved south, leaving Charlie and Ella behind in Springfield to await the birth of their daughter, Marjorie, in March.It was almost a year before the whole family was reunited in Texas where Post & Company was established to market homesites created from the ranchland.  To provide jobs for prospective homeowners, a small woolen mill to manufacture blankets and a paper mill to produce paper from cottonseed hulls were built.

Over the next three years Post was involved in every detail of the subdivision development.  The demands of the job left the young father once again prostrate after a mental and physical breakdown.  To find relief from this recurring illness his family decided to take the ailing Post to Michigan to visit the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium. 

At the Battle Creek Sanitarium

In February 1891 Ella Post, with her 36-year-old wheelchair-bound husband and their three-year-old daughter, arrived in the small Middlewestern town.Because their financial assets were tied up in the Texas real estate venture, the Posts could not afford to stay in the main building of the Sanitarium.  The young family rented a nearby cottage while C. W. was taking hydrotherapy, fresh air and exercise treatments at the "San," as the health resort was known around the world.

After ten months of "healthy" eating and intensive treatment, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the director of the Sanitarium, told Ella that he could do nothing further for her husband.  Determined to find a cure, she sought advice from  friends and family.  A cousin referred her to Mrs. Elizabeth Gregory, a local Christian Science practitioner.  Post found immediate help by following Mrs. Gregory's counsel to think and act as though he was well, and he would, in fact, become well.

Over the past decade Post had learned that "there is a taste of Heaven in perfect health and a taste of Hell in sickness."  After working with Mrs. Gregory, he came to believe that each person has "the power to go either road" he chose -- and he determined to travel the road to health, or "wellville." 

LaVita Inn

Post wished to share his new-found beliefs with others suffering from chronic ill health.  In March 1892 he purchased the Beardsley farm on the eastern edge of Battle Creek.  He planned to convert the farmhouse into his own health spa -- LaVita Inn -- where guests could recover their lost vitality.

To finance the development of this "new institution," Post returned to the method he had found successful in Texas.  He set aside part of the farmland as the "Cliffs Addition," which was divided into building lots, some with ready-built homes.  When these inexpensive lots and houses sold quickly to workers in nearby factories, Post secured enough cash to open his Inn.

The treatment offered at LaVita Inn was a combination of mental healing, rest, "moral entertainment" and proper dietetics.  Unlike the Sanitarium, the Inn was not a vegetarian institution, but did emphasize a healthy diet free from stimulants, including alcohol and caffeine.  Post told his guests that, "you cannot get well by exercise alone, or by positive thoughts alone.  You absolutely must give up the food and drink that disagree with you."

To educate the general public, as well as his guests at the Inn, Post wrote two books, "I Am Well" and "The Second Man," which described his "Mental Therapeutics and the Modern Practice of Natural Suggestion."

Post installed a laboratory in a small white barn near his farmhouse-spa.  Here he continually experimented with various health foods for his guests.  While a patient at the San, he had sampled Caramel Cereal Coffee, a cereal-based coffee substitute.  While Post shared Dr. Kellogg's fundamental revulsion for the effects of caffeine addiction, he found the Sanitarium product unpalatable.  He was determined to develop an improved, better tasting beverage.  But it was not until the end of 1894 that he was satisfied with his own hot drink, created from wheat, bran and molasses. 

Success through marketing

The guests at LaVita Inn liked the new beverage, called Postum Cereal Coffee, and soon it was selling well on the streets of Battle Creek.  Always looking for ways to increase sales, Post decided to widen his market.  In February 1895, he went to Grand Rapids and tried to interest grocers in his coffee substitute.  At first he met with resistance, since there was not established clientele for the new product.  He offered to build a demand by advertising in the local newspapers.  This technique was successful beyond his expectations and soon stores were clamoring for more of the 15 cent bags of Postum.

To further increase the demand for his new product, Post hired Miss Florence Tuttle to visit grocery stores around the country, demonstrating the proper way to prepare Postum.  In order for the beverage to reach its full, rich flavor it was necessary to boil it for a full twenty minutes.

Convinced that "the sunshine that makes a business grow is advertising,"  Post was one of the first to use extensive retail advertising to sell a food product.  He reinvested the profits from sales into advertising and quickly built the volume of his business.  His investment paid off.  By the end of the first year, he spent approximately $2,000 in advertising to generate more than $5,000 in sales of Postum.

Post's immediate financial success inspired a group of imitators to produce a cheaper, but inferior, product.  After unsuccessfully experimenting with ways to reduce costs producing his beverage while still retaining its quality, Post decided to fight the competition in a different way.  He packaged Postum in containers labeled "Monk's Brew" and reduced the price on the new boxes to 5 cents.  After the cheaper Monk's Brew drove the imitators out of the market, he discontinued the deception.  At 25 cents a package, Postum once again dominated the market.  Although he lost $46,000 in "the year of the contest," sales rose to almost $400,000 the next year, "after the field had cleared."

Although running the burgeoning Postum business consumed an ever-increasing portion of his time,  Post still worked in the experimental laboratory.  Homer Fisher, a long-time employee, remembered that, "Mr. Post was seen about the plant a great deal, dressed in overalls and jacket, helping with the actual work of making Postum.  At one time he was rushing excitedly about with small boxes in his hands...[which] contained the experimental work on a new Post Health Product -- the now famous Grape-Nuts." 

Developing new cereal products

Grape-Nuts, a "toothsome, nutritious breakfast food" made from whole wheat and malted barley flour, was a unique carbohydrate energy product. During the baking process, the starch was reduced to dextrose, or grape sugar.  In 1898 Post marketed the new cereal as "the most scientific food in the world" which "makes red blood" and was "rich in brain and nerve re-building elements."  Although he was unaware of the scientific reason, Post was correct in claiming that the cereal was nutritional.  It was not until many years later, after vitamins were isolated in an English laboratory, that the importance of the Vitamin B in Grape-Nuts was understood.

To promote his new health product, Post wrote "The Road to Wellville," summarizing his philosophy of healthy living and positive thinking, and attached a copy to each package of Grape-Nuts.  This little pamphlet may be considered one of the first cereal premiums offered by an American manufacturer.  Once again his promotions were effective and sales of Grape-Nuts soared in the first year.

A firm believer in the value of advertising, Post repeatedly demonstrated his understanding of the "art and science of salesmanship."  He wrote much of the advertising copy himself and approved all material which left the office.

The most memorable Post slogan was the enigmatic "There's a Reason," so closely associated with Post products that it is still in use today.  The discovery of the precise reason to purchase the product was left up to the imagination of the individual customer.

In 1906 Post's first corn flake, "Elijah's Manna," appeared on the market.  Although the product was successful, the name was a marketing disaster.  By associating his cereal with the Biblical food which sustained the Israelites while they wandered in the desert,  Post offended many deeply religious customers.   Realizing his error, he changed the name to Post Toasties.  To introduce grocers to the new name,  Post devised a successful marketing strategy, turning his mistake into an advantage.  He sent retailers a case half filled with boxes of Elijah's Manna and the other half of Post Toasties.  With great fanfare he told his public that, "It was decided to make this change because the name 'Post Toasties' carries an appetizing smack that pleases everyone, ...and we hope to have your heartiest support."

At the turn of the century, Post products were becoming known around the world.  In 1900 Postum and Grape-Nuts were first sold in Great Britain.  Four years later cereal packages in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew and Chinese were being printed at the factory.  By 1906 more than 600 employees were working around the clock, producing 6 to 7 million boxes of cereal a month. 

The cereal boom

In less than a decade, Post had become a millionaire and an internationally recognized business tycoon.

Post's meteoric rise inspired other would-be millionaires to try to copy his success.  Dozens of cereal and health food companies sprang up overnight, hoping to exploit not only the popularity of Post products but also the fame of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in the "health city."   In the first years of the century a "cereal rush" transformed Battle Creek into a boom town, followed by the "bust" which left only a handful of the companies still in business.    

The building campaign

During this period, Post removed himself from daily involvement in his factory and turned his attention to other business activities.  Remembering his early days as a traveling salesman, when he was at the mercy of bad hotels with worse kitchens, Post decided to build a first class establishment for the commercial traveler.  He purchased a block on Main Street (now W. Michigan Avenue) on the edge of downtown Battle Creek and built the Post Tavern which opened in 1901.  Post moved his family into a second floor suite and furnished the public rooms of the hotel with his extensive art collection.  The hotel boasted the latest features usually found only in big city hosteleries, including connecting baths and telephones in every room.

Although Post was a confirmed temperance advocate, the hotel did include a tap room called the "Wee Nippy," which became a favorite meeting place for the city's businessmen.

Between 1900 and 1904 Post erected a complex of buildings near his successful Tavern, including a six-story office building and the Marjorie Block on McCamly Street.  The Post Theater, opened in 1902, drew leading dramatic and vaudeville acts to Battle Creek for many years.   

Post’s personal life

However, his personal life was not running as smoothly as his business career.  His wife, Ella, suffered from a series of debilitating illnesses and spent much of her time in sanitoriums seeking relief.  Meanwhile, C. W. and daughter Marjorie traveled extensively around the country and abroad, so that the industrialist could "keep abreast of the times and the needs of the public."  Post also established a residence in Washington, D. C. to be near his daughter's boarding school.

With the continual separations, Post and his wife gradually grew farther apart and were finally divorced in 1904.  He then married Leila Young, whom he had originally employed as a companion to his daughter and later as his own private secretary at the factory. 

Political activities

When he lived in Washington and was closer to the seat of governmental power, Post became more interested in wielding political influence to protect his own business interests as well as the national welfare. He developed a proposal to improve the national money order system which was expensive and cumbersome.  His Post Check Currency idea was vigorously opposed by special interests and eventually defeated.  But the necessary reforms were implemented as a result of his intervention. 

The “peaceable industrial family”

Although he no longer lived in Battle Creek, Post continued to be interested in the well-being of his workers.  He paid his employees an above-average wage and frequently made anonymous gifts to those with special needs.  A merit bonus and savings plan was instituted in 1901.  But these generous business practices were offered as an incentive, not as charity, to his workers.  Post frequently stated that "the only welfare work I believe in is that which makes it possible for the man to help himself."

He was constantly concerned with cleanliness and safety in the workplace.  In 1906 the official plant tour book proudly proclaimed, "All the factory buildings are sheathed with steel, both inside and out, with a coat of asbestos underneath the metal, making the whole plant practically fireproof."

The workers took great pride in the "heavy, modern, labor-saving machinery" which produced Grape-Nuts on an automated assembly line "untouched by human hands."  The buildings of the "largest pure food factory in the world" were painted bright, sanitary white inside and out, and known universally as the "White City."

"Well kept, terraced lawns, with plenty of shade trees, flower beds and other specimens of the landscape gardener's art, surround[ed] the office and factory buildings, the verdure making a pleasing contrast with the white of the buildings."  A greenhouse on the factory grounds provided fresh-cut flowers for the offices and cafeteria as well as plantings around the grounds.

Post wanted "the surroundings of the business [to be] of a character that would add to the comfort of his [employees] and be of interest to visitors and patrons."  Thousands of visitors flocked to the factory each year after public tours were inaugurated in 1905.Post sought to develop a "peaceable industrial family" of contented employees.  In 1902 he opened the 80 acre Post Addition adjacent to the plant.  Here employees could purchase their own "American Home, the safeguard of American Liberties," for down payments as low as $10.  Monthly payments of 1/100th of the total cost of the property were deducted from their paychecks.

Although he himself was a member of the Typographical Union and believed that workers should organize to improve wages and working conditions, Post did not feel that unions were necessary at Postum Cereal.  After all, he offered generous wages, clean and safe working conditions, individual assistance to workers and low cost, attractive housing.  Post saw "utterly no reason for our workers to join a labor union and keep sending money out of town to maintain union cards and to foment strikes of violent proportions in other places."

Conversely, the industrialist stated that "I have no respect for the manufacturer who does not consider the interest and betterment of his employees."  Despite the prevailing bitterness between management and labor in other factories around the country, Postum did not experience labor strife.  Although there were regular efforts to unionize factories in Battle Creek, the city was known as a "Free City," with open shops in many of the largest industries.  The Post factory itself was not unionized until 1942.As Post became more involved in political and national affairs, he turned over the day-to-day operations of his company to a "cabinet" of nine men, including his brother C. L. Post, and Frank Grandin, advertising manager.  Over the years he had educated his daughter, Marjorie, in all aspects of the business. As a schoolgirl, she attended board meetings and was later quizzed about the proceedings.  This early practice, combined with travels with her father to factories and businesses around the world, helped her develop a keen business mind.

After C. W. Post's death in 1914, the ownership of the company passed to Marjorie.  She and the cabinet continued to operate the business according to the principles established by her father.  The product line was improved, the factory grew rapidly and increased space was devoted to research and laboratory departments.  The wooden structures of the "White City" were gradually replaced by "modern, brick-faced steel and concrete buildings." 

Expanding the company

Before his death, C. W. Post had discussed expanding his product line by purchasing other companies.  World War I put these plans on hold, but in the early 1920s Marjorie and her second husband, E. F. Hutton, began seriously exploring the possibilities. Jell-O was acquired in 1925, followed closely by Swan's Down Cake Flour, Minute Tapioca, Walter Baker Chocolate, Franklin Baker Coconut, Log Cabin Syrup, Maxwell House Coffee, Calumet Baking Powder, LaFrance Laundry Bluing, Hellmann's Mayonnaise, Diamond Crystal Salt, Certo and Sanka.  When Birdseye "Frosted Foods" were added to the list in 1929, the General Foods corporation was born.

Marjorie Merriweather Post continued to be an active member of the board until the 1950s.  General Foods was acquired by Philip Morris Companies in 1985.  When Kraft Foods was purchased three years later, the resulting  conglomerate became known as Kraft General Foods.  Expansion continued as the Nabisco label was acquired in 1993.  Two years later the company name was changed to Kraft Foods.

C. W. Post's "little white barn" still stands on the grounds of the Post Division of Kraft Foods.  Today the tiny structure is dwarfed by 44 factory buildings on the 56 acre site where 1400 workers earn their living each day.

With his restless, inventive mind, Post constantly sought new challenges.  He was a pioneer in cereal product development, retail advertising techniques and industrial relations.  Although he was a ruthless competitor in business, Post was a compassionate employer who was continually interested in the welfare of his workers.

Imperious glances from his penetrating steel grey eyes impaled business rivals but softened as he regarded his personal and "peaceable industrial family."