Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

The Cereal King of Filston Manor


There's no reason to know the name of Henry Drushel Perky, even though some readers probably enjoyed a bowl full of his invention this morning.

Perky, an eccentric businessman and champion of vegetarianism who suffered from chronic stomach problems while making and losing fortunes, was the inventor in 1891 of the process that gave birth to Shredded Wheat, America's oldest packaged breakfast cereal.

Perky's shredded wheat was introduced just ahead of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's corn flakes, which debuted in 1895, and Post Grape-Nuts, which landed on breakfast tables in 1897.

Perky's multidimensional life is the subject of a just-completed biography, A Success of Failures: The Life of Henry D. Perky, Inventor of Shredded Wheat, by Jim Holechek, 76, a retired Baltimore public relations executive.

Perky's life took him from the family farm in Mount Hope, Ohio, where he was born in 1843, to Gilded Age financier. His life came to a close in 1906 at Filston Manor, his vast estate in Glencoe.

He never seemed to run out of schemes and ideas that could potentially earn him the multimillionaire status enjoyed by other grandees of the era.

The men he admired and who he said influenced him included J. Pierpont Morgan, Jay Gould, George M. Pullman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie.

"As such, the dichotomies of wealth and philanthropy -- creating fortunes, yet having a strong sense of social morality -- were two of Henry Perky's goals," writes Holechek.

"Henry was more than an idle dreamer. With his fidelity to nature and social goals, he was a dedicated utopian. He was energetic, ambitious and only needed fours of sleep a night. Jim Rouse could get by on three," writes Holechek.

"Henry could be impetuous, and was certainly compulsive. He taught school, became a lawyer, built parts of three railroads, irrigation canals, two all-metal railroad passenger cars, sold cemetery lots, created a half-dozen major exhibits and expositions, built two schools and created the Shredded Wheat empire," he writes.

"Henry's mind was always working. He was a master salesman. In the Gilded Age, Henry became a land speculator who could use other people's money to build enterprises, and then resell surrounding lands, bought cheaply before any development existed, for a personal fortune," writes Holechek.

While traveling the country in 1891 trying to develop a market for steel railroad passenger cars built by his company, the Steel Car Co., Perky was stricken with stomach problems -- perhaps duodenal ulcers, Holechek says.

Perky's doctor recommended a diet of raw vegetables and boiled whole wheat grain with cream three times a day to relieve his suffering.

The birthplace of Shredded Wheat, reports Holechek, occurred in the spring of 1891 at the Porter House Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., where Perky was living with his wife and son.

He was attempting to find a more appetizing product than boiled wheat when he began spreading some of the cooked wheat on a lower grooved plate which was covered with a flat smooth plate on top.

A rolling pin was run over the mated sheets of iron in the direction of the grooves, causing a wheat filament product to emerge. The plates were then separated and the wheat filaments were lightly baked until they were a brownish color.

With the help of a machinist friend, William Henry Ford, he perfected a shredding machine that made his little "wheat nests" possible.

Perky established the Cereal Machine Co. and later the Shredded Wheat Co. to manufacture the cereal. The first plant was in the basement of a house in Denver, which was followed by plants in Worcester, Mass., and, in 1901, the more famous facility at Niagara Falls, N.Y., which for years was prominently featured on his cereal box.

Worried about the popularity of Shredded Wheat, Kellogg, in Battle Creek, Mich., offered Perky $100,000 for his machine and patents.

"You know I can make the nearest thing to Shredded Wheat and put you out of business before you begin," threatened Kellogg.

Perky turned him down.

"Dr. Kellogg tried to imitate it, but he failed," Perky said years later.

In 1901, the company's board forced Perky to sell his stock for $150,000, and three years later, he resigned as president of the National Food Co.

Perky tired of Northern winters, and in 1904, he purchased Filston Farm in Glencoe, a 22-room manor house costing $175,000 that was set on 1,200 acres of prime farmland and pasture. He purchased options on another 5,000 acres of farmland.

For years, he had operated the Oread Institute in Worcester, Mass., and after closing the school for girls, opened the Oread Institute, a vocational school, for both girls and boys, in 1906.

Perky, falling back on his utopian yearnings, called his farm, home and school "The Republic of Oread."

However, his imagined utopian world was coming to an end. Lawsuits and debts were constant companions of Perky's final years, and while he continued to dream big, financial realities would dictate otherwise.

On June 29, 1906, after sipping a brandy, he stepped into an ice- cold tub at noon. He was found dead 20 minutes later.

Perky, who was 62, most likely died of apoplexy, The Sun said at the time.

In an interview the other day, Holechek described Perky as "an extraordinarily brilliant man who had what amounted to a junior college education. He wasn't a robber baron and never had a relationship with any of them. He thought of himself always as a philanthropist.

"He didn't have a will and didn't leave his son anything. He didn't want him to turn into a drunk and a tramp. Henry really died broke," said Holechek, a steady customer of Shredded Wheat since 1933.

Perky was buried in the graveyard at Immanuel Episcopal Church in Glencoe. He was joined there two years later by his wife of 41 years, Susanna Melissa Perky.

On the 100th anniversary of Perky's death, Holechek and his wife, Pat, will visit the little country graveyard and lay a wreath on the Cereal King's grave.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad