Henry Perky

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Henry D. Perky Henry Perky.jpg
Henry D. Perky

Henry Drushel Perky (December 7, 1843 – June 29, 1906) was a lawyer, businessman, promoter and inventor. Perky is the inventor of shredded wheat.


Early life

He was born in Saltcreek township, Holmes County, Ohio, the fifth son of Daniel Jefferson Perky (ca. 1808–1862) and Magdalena Drushel (ca. 1812–1911), both of Pennsylvania. He married his wife Susanna Melissa Crow (1845–?) on August 3, 1865 in Mount Hope, Ohio. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in Nebraska. He was elected to the Nebraska State Senate in 1868 when only twenty-five years old (although other sources suggest he represented the eighth district from 1874 to 1876). The couple lived at Omaha, Nebraska and Wahoo, Nebraska before 1880. Henry went to Colorado for his health in 1880 where he was an attorney for the Union Pacific Railroad. Sue followed from Wahoo later that same year and, in Denver, Colorado, she gave birth to their only surviving child, Scott Henry Perky (1880–?).

Scott H. Perky went on to be a writer; the life of his father was the subject of one of his books. In 1920, he developed a round shredded wheat cereal, which he named Muffets. The Muffets Corporation was sold to the Quaker Oats Company in 1927.

Perky was a vegetarian. [1]

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 (1854-19?? ), 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, who had quite a reputation for making money during times that ruined other businessmen. Their firm was the Steel Car Company.

While the railcar was being built, Perky was busy trying to find a place to build a huge plant for building steel cars. He first proposed Chicago, Illinois, but when this did not generate significant interest, in 1888 he proposed Lincoln, Nebraska, and there the car would be named the "City of Lincoln". This idea too failed to catch on, so Perky moved on.

Perky finally found backing in St. Joseph, Missouri and there, in late 1888, at a cost of some $70,000, he erected a building on a large plot of land east of the city "beyond Wyatt Park". 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 a fire swept through the main building of the exposition. The ten cars being built, the Steel Car Company plant, and all the assets of the Steel Car Company were a total loss. Perky, not one to be easily discouraged, took the original Robbins car (that had been outfitted as a private car for Atkinson's personal use) for a transcontinental tour. Though it attracted a good deal of attention, it attracted no orders.

The cylindrical car was shown at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, but again attracted no orders. Although almost $40,000 had been spent on it, when the exposition closed, the railcar was abandoned on the fairgrounds and later sold by the firm that dismantled the Exposition.

Shredded Wheat Company

Sometime in the early 1890s, at a Nebraska hotel, Perky – who suffered from diarrhea – encountered a man similarly afflicted, who was eating boiled wheat with cream. The idea cooked for a while in Perky's mind, and in 1892, he took his idea of a product made of boiled wheat to his friend, William H. Ford, in Watertown, New York — a machinist by trade. Here they developed the machine for making what Perky called "little whole wheat mattresses", known worldwide as shredded wheat. They presented the machine at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, probably while Perky was trying to drum up buyers for his cylindrical steel rail passenger car.

His original intention was to sell the machines, not the biscuits. He returned to Denver and began distributing the biscuits from a horse-drawn wagon in an attempt to popularize the idea. There he founded the Cereal Machine Company. In 1895, Perky received United States Patent Number 548,086, dated October 15, 1895.

The biscuits proved more popular than the machines, so Perky moved East and opened his first bakery in Boston, Massachusetts and then in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1895, retaining the name of The Cereal Machine Company, and adding the name of the Shredded Wheat Company.

Whether he developed his ideas on nutrition before the machine or after, Perky was a food faddist who believed the fundamental issue was how to nourish a man so that his condition will be natural. Although John Harvey Kellogg and Charles William Post are better known, Perky was a pioneer of the "cookless breakfast food" and it was he who first mass-produced and nationally distributed ready-to-eat cereal. By 1898, shredded wheat was being sold all over North and 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, he hired Edward A. Deeds to build a new plant at Niagara Falls, New York. Deeds became a director of the National Food Company. Perky invited a large number of notables to a special luncheon. Canadian author Pierre Berton describes the bill of fare: "...a Shredded Wheat drink, Shredded Wheat biscuit toast, roast turkey stuffed with Shredded Wheat, and Shredded Wheat ice cream". 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.


Canadian Shredded Wheat advertisement Rod and gun (1898) (14781389664).jpg
Canadian Shredded Wheat advertisement

In 1902, Perky retired from the company and disposed of his interest. He published a book on nutrition and oral hygiene, Wisdom vs. Foolishness, that went through at least ten editions. Having made his fortune, the following year Perky arrived in Glencoe, Maryland and began purchasing large tracts of land in the region. His dream 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. The plans for the dedication were in place when Perky died days before the grand opening and the Oread School never opened.

Henry D. Perky died on June 29, 1906 at his farm in Glencoe. His obituary stated that he had been ill for a long time and that a fall from a horse a month earlier had hastened his death. He is buried in Glencoe, Maryland.

Shredded Wheat Company sold to Nabisco

In 1908, the company again took the name of the Shredded Wheat Company, and another factory was built in Niagara Falls. A third plant was added in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1904, known as the Canadian Shredded Wheat Company. By 1915 the Pacific Coast Shredded Wheat Company had been added in Oakland, California, and by 1925, a factory in Britain, in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, had joined the family.

In December 1928, the company was sold to the National Biscuit Company. The product name changed to Nabisco Shredded Wheat around 1941. Production of Shredded Wheat was begun in Naperville, Illinois in 1970. All the other plants remained in operation, until 1954, when the original "Palace of Light" was shut down.


Posthumously granted:

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  1. Iacobbo, Karen; Iacobbo, Michael. (2004). Vegetarian America: A History. Praeger. p. 121. ISBN   0-275-97519-3