Right about the turn of the 20th century, Henry Ford ushered in the next step of the Industrial Revolution with his production line that subsequently put the world on wheels. Meanwhile, out in western Michigan, two brothers were perfecting a new kind of prepared food that eventually changed how hundreds of millions of people across the globe eat breakfast.
Although products emblazoned with their name are in countless homes, few folks know much about John H. and Will K. Kellogg, whose efforts gave birth to a multi-billion-dollar business behemoth.
Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, does much to rectify this situation with The Kelloggs, a fascinating dual biography of the brothers.
John and Will's forebears arrived in America not long after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. About 200 years later, John Preston Kellogg, the men's father, had his fill of trying to farm the rocky soil of Massachusetts and set out with his family to the promised land of Michigan. They settled near Flint and hewed two farms out of the wilderness. John H. was born in Tyrone to his father's second wife in 1852.
A turning point in the family's history came a few years later when John Preston joined a new sect, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He and a few other members persuaded church leader Ellen Harmon White to move her operations to Battle Creek in 1855, and he traded his farm for a broom factory in the city a year later. Will was born there in 1860.
John H. became the family's golden child at an early age. Believing he was destined for greatness, they sacrificed to send him to medical school. Will, meanwhile, was considered a drudge. He started making brooms in the factory as a boy and went on to menial sales jobs in his teens.
John and White developed a close relationship, and the church helped support him in medical school. When he returned to Michigan, he took over a small hospital run by the Adventists, which he used as the cornerstone of his world-renowned Battle Creek Sanitarium. A devout church member, John thoroughly endorsed the Adventists' approach to diet, which avoided meat and focused on fruits, vegetables and grains. And that's the food he served to patients at his sanitarium.
Meanwhile, as the sanitarium became bigger and more complex, John took on Will as his factotum. An organizational genius, Will essentially wound up running the place -- not that his brother really noticed. John never deigned to give Will a job title and treated him miserably, paying him only $9 a week when he put in 120 hours or more on the job.
John was forever tinkering with recipes for his sanitarium, and breakfast posed a particular problem because he wanted to serve food that was nutritional but quick to prepare. While he didn't invent cold cereal, he (with Will's help) perfected it.
To some extent, C.W. Post helped create the Kellogg cereal empire. Post had come to the sanitarium as a patient and worked in the food operation to help pay for his treatment. He learned all of the brothers' cereal secrets, formed his own company and made a fortune marketing the Kelloggs' wheat flakes as Post Toasties and their granola as Grape-Nuts.
While John had always made small amounts of his cereals for sale in town and to former patients, he felt commercializing the products would hurt his reputation as a medical doctor. Will, however, was outraged. After years of fruitlessly arguing with John about going into the cereal business, Will finally paid off John for the right to produce and sell their cereal in mass quantities.
And so it was that, after decades of abuse at the hands of his brother, Will Kellogg became an overnight success in his mid-40s.
There is so much more in Markel's lengthy -- 506 pages -- but thoroughly engaging book. Some of it is depressing, especially the bitterness between the brothers that sometimes spilled into outright hatred over the years. Even sadder is Will's personal life. Perhaps because of his unhappy childhood and years of subservience to John, Will never seemed to enjoy the millions he made. His relations with his children were strained, and he had few close friends.
But Markel has done a great service in telling how The Best to You Each Morning came to be. And you'll never think of corn flakes as boring again.
Markel, Howard. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battled Creek, New York: Pantheon Books, 2017. $35.00
The book is also leavened with humor like the short story in which an inmate has to be taught how to lie convincingly instead of making a fool out of himself by trying to convince fellow inmates, “He died twice and met God both times,” or “He used law-enforcement-grade-pepper-spray to spice up his pizzas.”
Dawkins, Curtis. Graybar Hotel, New York: Scribner, 2017. $26
Thanks to our guest reviewer Gene Mierzejewski, Flint Journal's retired book review editor, for reviewing The Kelloggs.