Ypsilanti’s Failed Breakfast Cereal
Ypsilanti once had a chance of becoming an empire of breakfast cereals, like Battle Creek.
In 1909, electricity was still making inroads into the city. Only some houses were “wired.” Most were heated with coal. Cars were uncommon. Most women were homemakers, and most men’s commute consisted of a walk from home to another part of the city.
Many families got their flour from the Ypsilanti Milling Company on Cross Street near the river. The mill’s ad in the March 2, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press read,
“The Ypsilanti Mill is now running and turning out a STRICTLY HIGH GRADE FLOUR.
“Our BLUE LABEL brand is gaining new friends every day. Last week it was just a youngster. This week it is older and you will probably like it better.
“Further, we want you to try our ‘TIDAL WAVE’ brand. It’s a strictly high class patent and worthy of a little assistance from its friends in the way of trial orders.
“We have on hand BRAN MIDDLINGS, COTTON SEED MEAL, LINSEED MEAL, CALF MEAL, WHEAT HEARTS and GRAHAM.
“Our wagon is still running [for home delivery] and we want you to phone your orders in AT ONCE OR SOONER.”
The hydro-powered mill was an old one, dating from the 1830s. A feature article in the May 23, 1874 Ypsilanti Commercial gave an overview of the city businesses of the time. The piece mentions the city mill.
“[The mill stands] on the east bank of the Huron, above Cross Street bridge. It, or rather the mill of which this is an enlargement, was built in Territorial days [before Michigan became a state in 1837]. In 1865 it came into the possession of the Ypsilanti Woolen Mill Company, and by this company was sold to T. C. Owen, Esq., a nephew of E. B. Ward of Detroit, who is also an interested party. The mill is an immense structure. It contains seven run of stone, and at present is turning out 250 barrels of flour per day. It, in addition, grinds 30,000 bushels of grain per year, for the farmers of the vicinity. . . A side track from the Michigan Central Railroad runs to the door of the mill.” The side track ran approximately where Rice Street is today.
Ypsilanti poet-farmer William Lambie raised wheat on his farm just north of town. In his poem “A Harvest Hymn,” published in his 1883 book “Life on the Farm,” he lauded the grain:
We see the God of nature in bounteous love bestowing,
In every year of life we reap the seed we have been sowing,
Till our barns are filled with plenty and cups are overflowing,
As we are marching on.
We have entered on a calling that will never know defeat,
For honor and for daily bread we work in summer’s heat,
Ever reaping golden harvests of the finest of the wheat,
When summer days are long.
1909 was a good year for local wheat production. The Ypsilanti Milling Corporation decided to put some of that wheat into a new venture. It milled it into a breakfast gruel similar to Cream of Wheat.
On August 6, 1909 the first ad for “Wheat Hearts” appeared.
“What are they? Well, we’ll tell you. They are our new breakfast food made from the very best wheat grown; viz, that around Ypsilanti, and ground fresh every day. Why buy breakfast foods made away from home when you can get something here which you know is fresh and which will cost you less money. Ask your grocer for Wheat Hearts.
“The Ypsilanti Milling Co.
“East Cross St. Phone 171.”
The ad ran again on August 10, 12, and 16.
Several local grocers also ran ads during that summer, often listing their goods and specials in the ads. Some listed oatmeal and cornflakes.
None listed Ypsilanti Wheat Hearts.
The Ypsilanti Milling Company’s ads for Wheat Hearts vanished by September of 1909. Perhaps no one wanted a hot breakfast gruel in August. Possibly a fall launch of the cereal might have helped it to succeed. At any rate, Wheat Hearts vanished from the scene. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum holds no packaging artifacts of this forgotten cereal.
Had it caught on, Wheat Hearts might have made Ypsilanti a breakfast cereal empire, renowned from Mackinac to Monroe. Trains could have shipped the cereal to cities around the nation. Citizens could have been humming the catchy Wheat Hearts jingle, perhaps along the lines of:
From the fertile Ypsilanti
To the pantry of my auntie,
It’s Wheat Hearts!
For some good starts!
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Wheat Hearts vanished from the 1909 papers and presumably from local stores—if indeed it had ever been stocked.
The only people who remember our failed foray into the breakfast cereal arena are local hermits poring over crumbling newspapers.
And they’re no help in promoting Wheat Hearts. They usually have just a miserly cup of coffee—black, no sugar—for breakfast.
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Catch her free talk with local historianJames Mann at Ypsilanti’s Senior Center Wednesday, July 7 at 7:30 p.m.. Have an old-time Ypsi story? Contact Laura at email@example.com.