The Quaker’s Oats
THE MAN WHO made the Cuyahoga one of the most influential rivers in the United States was a short, tough, strait-laced German, Ferdinand Schumacher.
But before he arrived some preparations had been made. While Cleveland evolved with the opening of the canal, Akron sprang into being. And it grew not in a gently rising curve, but in sharp steps like the stairway of land locks to its summit. Most of these steps up resulted from the canal’s reaching new major shipping towns on its way south and finally cutting through into the Ohio River in 1830. Akron’s population jumped to 910.
The completion of Dr. Eliakim Crosby’s Cascade Millrace using the waters of the Little Cuyahoga was the next big step up.
Then as each of five grinding mills was built at each of five dams one above the other, climbing the side of the Little Cuyahoga valley, Akron became 2,336 people.
In 1840 the city took an extra large step up. Leicester King had always wanted to connect Akron to Pittsburgh by canal. General Perkins and Dr. Eliakim Crosby helped on this one, too, but King spearheaded the politics and financing.
King had ten years of saddle time invested before Ohio agreed to make available one dollar for every two dollars raised by private investment. Pennsylvania voted $50,000 to the long canal from Pittsburgh to Newcastle to Youngstown, Warren, Ravenna, Akron. King needed $840,000; so again he took to the saddle, riding hundreds of miles on the byways along the right-of-way, raising funds.
Despite the financial panic of 1837, King was successful, and the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal came into Akron in 1840, using for its last leg the runoff spillway of Dr. Crosby’s millrace. That connected it to the Ohio and Lake Erie and from the moment of that connection another major phase of Akron’s growth began as the city became terminal, tavern, warehouser, and stevedore to a three-way waterborne commerce.
Now within the city other industries grew, particularly clay products, farm machinery, wool, leather goods, and boat building.
But the Little Cuyahoga was about to make Akron into the nation’s headquarters for one of mankind’s basic staples with the help of an unsmiling little German storekeeper.
While Ferdinand Schumacher was becoming Akron’s largest industrialist, the young pioneers who furnished the waterway foundations for his industry had become old men.
General Perkins was the first to die, in 1844.
Dr. Crosby, encouraged by the success of Cascade Mill-race, set out to build an even greater one at Cuyahoga Falls. But he ran into trouble with financing, then he ran into harder digging than he anticipated, then he ran into the financial panic of 1837. With his fortune and his health smashed by the project, he moved west in 1853 and died in 1854.
Judge King built a fortune and died in 1856.
The general, the doctor, and the judge left their names on streets, schools, and the pages of history.
Dr. Crosby had been right when he said Akron would not grow into a really great city just by being a warehouse and a tavern for the passing canal traffic. He said they had to make something to ship out. And they could not do that until they had power for manufacturing.
To furnish that power they built Cascade Millrace, a controlled sluice split off from the Little Cuyahoga on such a course that it came down the escarpment over a series of dams to turn five enormous water wheels. At these damsites five mills grew up: The Aetna, a distillery; the Center Mill, north of Market; the Cascade, near the bottom of the hill; Perkins Mill, wool; and the City Mill.
These weren’t little village mills where you took your grain to be ground while you waited. The Little Cuyahoga’s waters ground the grain, 50 barrels a day, then went over the spillways into the canal and floated the flour north to Cleveland, south to Cincinnati. That made Akron a very large flour center. But that was about to seem small.
Even at 29, Ferdinand Schumacher wore an older man’s beard, squared off severely below the chin, heavy on the sides but with the smooth ecclesiastical upper lip. Above it sat a Quaker’s shovel hat which shadowed a stern face set against relaxation, tobacco, and liquor.
In 1851 he came from Hanover, Germany, to Akron, and there he started a small grocery on Howard Street.
The only reason that is important to the Cuyahoga is that Ferdinand did not like to see his customers buying such deluxe and fancy foods. He thought it was a little sinful. Back in Germany in the grocery business, he used to sell a lot of oats, good solid grain that grew good solid people, and cost very little. America ought to be eating it. So he put in a stock.
However, Akron people did not bring oats to the table. Oats were for the stable. Oats were for horses.
So the oats did not sell. But Schumacher was a stubborn man. For three years, he worried about people not eating oats; and in 1854, he invented a chopper to make tiny cubes of oats. He packed them in one-ounce jars.
Akron people took a liking to these little cubes of oats, bought a lot of them. In five years, Schumacher built a small factory near Market and Howard. It was referred to as the German Mill. He did so well that in five years he needed a second plant. The railroad had arrived. Since he had one plant on the canal, he built the new one in the triangle formed by Main, Market and Exchange Streets.
In the next ten years, Schumacher’s business grew like wild oats. When you consider that Akron left the oat strictly for the horse until Schumacher chopped it into blocks, the growth was dramatic.
The oat is something to which you must apply quite a lot of ingenuity to make it marketable. Now in 1876, the stubborn Dutchman found a way to precook the oats and run them between rollers so that they flaked off - rolled oats. I can’t go ashore far enough to show you all the excitement this caused. But even from the banks of the Little Cuyahoga’s Cascade Mill-race, you could see that the whole United States liked Mr. Schumacher’s rolled oats.
More Schumacher plants went up alongside the Cascade and the canal - and now alongside the railroad. Schumacher mills occupied an entire city block, and turned Akron’s skyline into towering elevators for grain storage.
The eight-story Jumbo Mill was the biggest enterprise in Akron. Ferdinand Schumacher had become far and away the nation’s greatest miller. In addition to making rolled oats, he also made flour; and he marketed all the way from Boston to San Francisco.
He was not a leader in the sense of drawing men to him or organizing them or stirring them. He was a leader in the sense that men said, “Look what Schumacher’s doing; let’s get some of that, too.”
Following Ferdinand Schumacher’s success, many others in and beyond Akron went into the rolled oat business and into the flour business. It had been a mill town ever since Dr. Crosby built the Cascade. But by 1880, there were ten large mills along the Cascade and Little Cuyahoga, and 11 smaller ones.
Strangely enough, the big trouble that started now was because of a wise Scotchman in Canada who was looking down upon the American milling picture from north of the Great Lakes. It seemed to him that American flour mills were too far from their best source of grain. He thereupon built a large mill in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the heart of the wheat and corn country. He made flour.
The instant that happened, nearly every mill along the Little Cuyahoga switched instantly from flour to oatmeal, Schumacher’s special domain.
Cummins & Allen, owning two mills, built a third right under Ferdinand Schumacher’s nose beside Old Stone Mill.
Crowell & Andrews over in Ravenna had bought up the Old Quaker Mill there. They were two powerful young Clevelanders with a lot of nerve and drive. They built this mill up so that it made a strong challenge to Schumacher’s mill.
When Schumacher reached the age of 64, he faced a very rugged test. Just as Crowell & Andrews were hitting him hardest in the market place, a fire in the night hit his mills.
For a deeply religious man like Ferdinand Schumacher who looked for the hand of God in nearly every action about him, this was a double blow. The fire caused dust explosions, instantly followed by implosions. And by morning, the mightiest mills in America were ruins.
While smoke still curled up from standing blackened posts, word spread through the crowd which was almost all of Akron, “Well over half a million damages.”
“He’ll never make it back.”
“Who? Schumacher? He’ll be rebuilt in six months.”
“Nope. No insurance. He says death, storms and fire are God’s punishing us. To insure against Him is blasphemy.”
Ferdinand Schumacher was crushed. But he didn’t whine. The only sign to the town was that hour after hour Schumacher’s small figure paced the blackened site of his mills.
He would stop and retrieve a trinket here and there.
This made the population nervous, because in this town, no matter what business you were in, you were in the milling business. If you weren’t in the mill, you were serving or selling to those who were.
Seeing its largest employer wiped out set Akron scurrying to put him back on his feet. But Schumacher was hard to help.
The men from the brewery walked over into the charred ruins. When they found him, they pointed out to him that the huge piles of grain on the surface were only water damaged. “We can use that. We’ll pay cash. It could bring you enough to start construction.”
But the little purist would have no part in corrupting youth with alcohol.
Albert Allen of Cummins & Allen, the stiffest competition, walked over onto the burnt acreage, “If you say the word, we’ll supply your customers until you can rebuild. We’ll ship it in your bags. Hold your trade for you. Be glad to do it.”
“I should think ye would,” Schumacher said, “you have a fine new mill and no business. I have business and no mill.”
The town worried, Schumacher’s brutal abruptness was driving off all those who would help them save the business of Akron. They watched him walking along the banks of the Little Cuyahoga, then along the canal with his hands clasped behind his back, thinking.
One morning the gate guard at Cummins & Allen sent a runner to the outer office saying unless he was losing his mind he had just admitted Ferdinand Schumacher though the man would not give his name. He had brushed right by.
The outer office told the inner office, and Albert Allen had all cigars and cuspidors removed from his office.
The man with the spade-cut beard who walked in snapped, “You were good enough to offer your assistance.”
“Yes.” After his recent rebuff, Allen answered in lean language.
“I accept your offer,” said Schumacher, “but different. I have thought this over very long. When Alex Cummins died last year, he made you sole executor of his estate, without bond. That means he thought you an honest man; he ought to know. I understand you increased the value of his estate substantially, so you be also a good business head. I’m proposing to you - your company and mine should merge.”
Allen could have been surprised, or he could have been reluctant. But he said nothing.
“P’raps you’re wondering,” continued the great miller, “what is to gain you should merge with a company with burned down mills.”
The old man now took paper from Allen’s desk and a pencil from his vest, “Here is your plant along this canal. You cart your grain four blocks up and down the rise to gain the rails. Here is my loading platform alongside the railroad tracks.
“I believe we could lay pipe under the road - with a blower here - und blast our grain from the cars direct to your mill.”
Allen studied the sketch and fingered his chin.
“Appraisers can value the two properties,” Schumacher said. “We let that set shares.”
Within the month, Schumacher Milling Company was incorporated for $2,000,000. Work began on a great trench and three large pipes, ten inches, eight, and seven.
To the amazement of Akron, it worked.
Akron went back to work.
Many today who can find the Little Cuyahoga cutting in and out underneath Akron don’t know that the pipes were still at work under there, blowing grain between the Quaker Oats elevators on the hilltop and the mills down over the canal.
Now the oatmeal business appeared to do so well for Ferdinand Schumacher that 21 vigorous competitors had crowded in by 1886 to glorify the oat - and to chop the price. The weaker companies kept cutting the price to survive. Chaos set in.
To stem the falling prices, an enormous association of oatmeal millers formed. All but one company joined. Schumacher, the stubborn, stayed out.
The association had problems. The marginal members quietly accepted a shaved price now and then. Buyers knew that you could approach certain association members with a price deal. The association failed in a year.
Another was formed; this one levied severe fines on any member company which cut prices. But what this did was hold prices protectively high to allow 20 new nonmember companies to form and sneak in under the association price to undersell them all.
H. P. Crowell stepped forward. He was one of the young industry leaders who had begun with Andrews in Warren and moved to the Little Cuyahoga. He called a meeting of the industry and he made a blunt proposal. How can the public favor the miller who uses the best grain and the best processes when it’s sold in bulk? If we put it in a package with a name on it, the customer could tell the good from the bad.
He proposed the formation of a big new company which would intensively advertise a brand name. “And I’m sorry, Ferdinand, but it shouldn’t be Schumacher.”
Seven out of the 21 companies were willing, and they merged to become American Cereal Company.
Ferdinand Schumacher thus became president of the largest cereal company in the world, without even liking the idea.
He did not believe in Crowell’s ads and his fancy package. “I built the biggest business in the whole country without advertising. And this foolishness in putting oatmeal in fancy boxes is a waste. Let them scoop it out of the barrel like before. Cheaper, too.”
The name they put on the package was picked by Crowell. Quaker Oats.
Schumacher tried to continue as before, supervising every detail of the business himself, including reading all the company’s mail, personally. Not only that, he answered it all in person.
They had to move the offices to Chicago to be central to their western plants and Akron. When the Dutchman left the Little Cuyahoga, he walked out of our story. But not until he had fulfilled Dr. Crosby’s prophecy that if the waters of the Little Cuyahoga were made to furnish power, it would make Akron.
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