Kellogg’s: Sitting on a Corn Flake, Part 2

About all William Keith Kellogg and his brother John had in common was a strong work ethic, a deep appreciation of food, and blood. Sure, they looked similar – same stout stature, strong jaw, and pronounced mustache (though he preferred a freshly shaved look in his later years) – and you could almost say they acted alike. But those superficial parallels masked a growing divide between the two. Practical Will increasingly found his brothers bizarre flights of fancy, well, bizarre, even if he kind of looked up to John. From administering yogurt enemas to pouring carbolic acid on clitorises to prevent women from masturbating, success only made John more eccentric. He felt entitled to do as he pleased, secure in the knowledge that he was right.

The glamor – and oddness – of the Battle Creek Sanitarium at its heights. Notice that the men are in loincloths that resemble adult diapers. Daily enemas and extreme diets that we’d recognize today as fasts were other ways John exerted his power over patients.

Still, the the brothers worked together in what was now affectionately referred to by guests as “the San”, domineering John tending to his wealthy and influential patients with his laughing exercises, bland vegetarian diets, and colon surgeries while Will kept his head down and managed the books. About the only place the two truly saw eye to eye anymore was the kitchen.

That was, until some boiled wheat was forgotten for a couple hours on a busy, eventful day at the San. When it was rediscovered, it didn’t look quite right, but in the spirit of frugality, it was rolled out anyway. After all, wasted food was wasted money.

The result, thin, irregular strips of dough that once baked turned into satisfyingly crunchy flakes, was a minor miracle, perhaps the first true breakfast cereal. The brothers served the flakes to the San’s patients and it was an instant hit, a welcomed break from dry gluten and stewed prunes. Breakfast would never be the same again.

Later, John and Will both tried to take full credit for the invention corn flakes. Except, of course, for the diplomatically sticky addition of sugar. That was all Will’s idea.

“I believe in the unconscious state of the mind in death.” – John Harvey Kellogg

The brothers knew they had a revolutionary product on their hands, and created the Sanitas Food Company to sell their corn flakes across the country. It wasn’t exactly an overnight success. Though John had earlier criticized the Adventists for lacking business sense when he wrestled the San away from their iron grip, his own missionary zeal got the best of him with Sanitas. Whenever Will suggested adding sugar to the flakes to boost lackluster sales, John blocked him, refusing to budge even a milligram per serving.

To John, the idea of promoting health with refined sugar as the proverbial “brownie on the stick” was self-defeating and unconscionable. Sure, he wanted to beat C.W. Post at his own game, a former San guest that had made millions off the processes for making cereal that John had pioneered and frequently showed off to curious guests. But he wasn’t going to compromise his beliefs. Never.

But Will, convinced that Sanitas was a gold mine awaiting only sugar, bought out a controlling interest in what today you’d call a hostile takeover. See, John – always seeking new ways to cut costs – had given away considerable stock in the company to San doctors in lieu of paying them what they believed they deserved. Will secretly bought up their shares until he had more than John, taking the reins and renaming Sanitas the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company.

You probably know it as Kellogg’s.

John and Will were enemies for the rest of their lives. They sallied the occasional lawsuit at one another like you might exchange greeting cards with your siblings.

It was a high price to pay for corn flakes.

“For twenty-two and one-half years, I had absolutely lost all my individuality in you [John]. I tried to see things through your eyes and do things as you would do them. You know in your heart whether or not I am a rascal.” – William Keith Kellogg

The Kelloggs defined Battle Creek. You literally can’t escape their specters. The city’s downtown smells like chocolate fudge Pop-Tarts fresh from the toaster. The Sanitarium, now the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center, looms ominously over the horizon. Kellogg remains the city’s top employer, and the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center is the third largest, with Kellogg Community College ranking in at eighth. The history is palpable, at your fingertips, in the alley ways, dripping from the eaves.

I just hope that somewhere, up in that big, blue sky brimming with mystery, John and Will are hugging it out.


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