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inventor of shredded wheat
Henry Drushel Perky was born on a family farm near Mount Hope, Ohio, on December 7, 1843. He married Susanna Melissa Crow on August 3, 1865; the couple had one child who survived to adulthood, a son named Scott Henry.
Sometime around 1868, Perky moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he studied law in the office of General John C. Cowin. After being admitted to the Nebraska Bar, he moved to Fremont. He subsequently moved to Wahoo, Nebraska, and was serving on the village board when the town was incorporated on September 1, 1874. He was also the publisher of the local paper, The Independent, and served one term in the Nebraska State Legislature (either 1874-1875 or 1875-1877, depending on which source you reference).
In 1880, Perky's health led him to move to Denver, Colorado, where he became an attorney for the Union Pacific Railroad. He also undertook his first known entrepreneurial venture, the buying and selling of right of way subsidies secured in the construction of the Republican Valley & Omaha Railroad. In a time when many other budding entrepreneurs were losing more money than they made, Perky's venture was successful, and he was able to maintain a comfortable life for himself, his wife, and his son.
The Steel Car Company
In 1884, the assets -- a patent and a half-finished car -- of the bankrupt Robbins Cylindrical Steel Car Company were acquired by Byron A. Atkinson, a well-to-do Boston furniture dealer with some background as a machinist. To promote his cylindrical steel rail passenger car, Atkinson hired Henry Perky, and the two formed the Steel Car Company. While the railcar was being completed, Perky looked for a place to build a huge factory to manufacture steel railway cars. After both Chicago, Illinois, and Lincoln, Nebraska, were turned down by investors, Perky found financial backing in St. Joseph, Missouri. In late 1888, after raising some $70,000, Perky built a building on a large plot of land east of St. Joseph. He also organized an exposition, to be called the National Railway, Electric and Industrial Exposition, but more popularly known as the "New Era Exposition." The exposition was set up on the grounds of the Steel Car Company, with the western portion of its building as the main hall of the exposition.
On the night of September 15, 1889, the Steel Car Company plant was destroyed by fire, along with all ten of the cars then under construction. Undaunted by this setback, Perky simply took the original half-finished car (which had since been outfitted as a private car for Atkinson's personal use) on a transcontinental tour. Although the steel car attracted a great deal of attention, Perky was unable to obtain any orders. In 1893, Perky took the steel car to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Once again, the car received a lot of attention, but generated no orders. Although he had spent almost $40,000 on the venture, Perky abandoned the railcar on the fairgrounds, and it was subsequently sold for scrap by the company that dismantled the Exposition.
The product which brought Perky the greatest fame, and fortune, was invented because Perky developed digestive problems (probably ulcers) while trying to sell his steel railcar. His doctor recommended a diet of raw vegetables and boiled whole wheat grain with cream three times a day, and Perky did his best to follow his doctor's advice. Not surprisingly, however, Perky found the boiled wheat grain part of the diet less than appealing. Exactly how and when he came up with the idea of shredding the cooked wheat and then baking it is unclear, but in 1892 he took his idea to William Henry Ford, a machinist friend in Watertown, New York, who helped him develop a machine that could shred the wheat and then "weave" it into pillow-shaped "biscuits." On August 1, 1893, Perky and Ford were jointly awarded U.S. Patent #502,378 for a "Machine for the Preparation of Cereals for Food." The men first demonstrated their machine at the same Exposition where Perky was displaying his steel car.
Shredded Wheat biscuit
Perky's original intention was to sell the machine, but no one was interested in investing in a machine that made an unproven product. After returning to Denver, he established a small bakery to make the "biscuits," which he served in an attached restaurant and sold door-to-door via a fleet of horse-drawn wagons. He also established The Cereal Machine Company, which was supposed to manufacture the machine once he had proven that it was a worthy investment. The wheat biscuits were a hit, but Perky was never able to get an investor for the machine that made them, so he decided to focus on selling the cereal instead. He received U.S. Patent #548,086 for his "Design for a Biscuit" on October 15, 1895.
In 1895, having established a demand for his wheat biscuits, Perky decided to move east and establish a factory to manufacture them. His Cereal Machine Company was first moved to Boston, Massachusetts, but he then moved it to Worchester, Massachusetts, where he also added The Shredded Wheat Company to the name. By 1898, Shredded Wheat was being sold throughout North America, as well as in South America and Europe.
In 1901, drawn by the idea of inexpensive electrical power for baking, and the natural draw of a popular tourist attraction, Perky hired Edward A. Deeds to build a new plant at Niagara Falls, New York. (Deeds subsequently became a director of what was by then called the National Food Company.) Once the plant was completed, Perky invited a large number of notables to a luncheon that featured a Shredded Wheat drink, Shredded Wheat biscuit toast, roast turkey stuffed with Shredded Wheat, Shredded Wheat ice cream, and other similar fare. The factory itself was called "The Palace of Light," and was white-tiled, air-conditioned, well-lit with floor-to-ceiling windows, and equipped with showers, lunchrooms (a free lunch for women, men had to pay 10¢), and auditoriums for the employees. It even had a roof garden with a view of the Falls. A representation of the factory appeared on the Shredded Wheat boxes for decades.
Shredded Wheat box showing Niagara Falls plant
Perky retired from and sold his interest in the National Food Company in 1902. In 1904, he purchased Filston Farm in Glencoe, Maryland, a 22-room manor house costing $175,000 that was set on 1,200 acres of prime farmland and pasture, as well as options on another 5,000 acres of farmland. Having already made his fortune, Perky's plan was to build a boarding school for men and women that would offer an innovative curriculum of scientific farming and domestic science subjects free of tuition. The main building was completed, elaborate brochures were printed and a few students had enrolled, but Perky died on June 29, 1906, just days before the planned grand opening, and his "Oread School" never opened. Perky is buried in the cemetery of Immanuel Episcopal Church in Glencoe.
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This page was last updated on December 07, 2018.