Nebraska history contains several cul de sacs along it’s relatively short path. One of those regards the inventor of shredded wheat breakfast cereal, Henry Perky. Perky’s story begins near Mount Hope, Ohio where he was born on December 7, 1843. 22 years later he married Susanna Crow. They had one son who survived into adulthood, Scott.
In 1868, the Perky’s moved to Omaha, Nebraska where Henry apprenticed in law in the office of General John Cowin. After passing the Bar exam, Perky relocated a few miles north to Fremont for awhile, then moved to the small town of Wahoo, Nebraska. There, he served on the village board after the town was incorporated in September of 1874. Perky also was the publisher of Wahoo’s newspaper, The Independent. Perky also served one term in the Nebraska legislature in the mid 1870s.
In the mid 1880s Perky was hired by Byron Atkinson who had purchased the bankrupt “Robbins Cylindrical Steel (railroad) Car Company. After an aborted start in Chicago, Perky proposed that the large manufacturing plant be built in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1888, he wanted the car to be named the “City of Lincoln”. The car had no commercial takers, so, in 1889, Perky took leave of Nebraska and moved on to St. Joseph, Missouri to build his plant near there. In September, his factory burned and nearly all the assets were lost.
The one remaining car was taken on a transcontinental tour, but again, attracted no commercial orders. He then displayed the car at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It attracted plenty of casual curious viewers but no commercial orders. After the fair closed, the car was abandoned at the site.
It was after the 1889 factory fire that Perky briefly returned to Omaha. His troubles with the Steel railway cars caused much worry and contributed to chronic digestion problems. His physician prescribed a bland diet of vegetables and included boiled wheat nuggets with cream. One unsubstantiated story says that while Perky was eating in the dining room of an Omaha hotel, he observed another patron eating boiled wheat with cream. It was then and there that the idea of a pre-cooked ready to eat wheat biscuit popped into his head.
In 1892, Perky collaborated with his machinist friend, William Henry Ford of Watertown, New York to develop a machine that could manufacture pillow shaped wheat biscuit food. In August of 1893, Ford and Perky were awarded the U.S. Patent for a “Machine for the Preparation of Cereals for Food.” The pair demonstrated the machine at the Columbian Exposition, at the same time the steel railcar was being shown. The cereal proved to be a much more popular hit than the railroad car.
Perky and Ford had initially hoped that the exposition could help them sell their machine, but nobody was willing to invest in an unproven product. Perky moved to Denver, Colorado to open his own small bakery to produce biscuits to be served in an attached cafe. The cereal was also sold door to door from wagons. People loved to eat the biscuits, but once again, Perky was unable to sell any of his machines.
In the meantime, Perky could lay legitimate claim to being the person to produce the very first pre-cooked, ready to eat breakfast cereal. From large scale production and distribution in Colorado, Perky decided to expand his business and to only sell cereal.
In October of 1895, Perky was awarded the U.S. Patent for his “Design for a Biscuit”. That year, he moved to Massachusetts and established a much larger shredded wheat company. There, he watched sales of his product greatly increase.
With the advent of easily available electricity in 1901, Perky and his newly hired director, Edward Deeds, constructed a new baking plant at Niagra Falls, New York. Their newly established “National Food Company” not only manufactured shredded wheat “pillows”, it became a model industrial plant. Perky named the factory “The Palace of Light”. It featured pristine white tiles, floor to ceiling windows, air-conditioning, showers, auditoriums, and lunchrooms.
In 1902, Perky sold his interest in the National Food Company and retired to a large farm in Maryland. His plan was to operate an agricultural, co-educational boarding school to teach domestic science and farming subjects. Only a few days before the scheduled grand opening, Henry Perky passed away on June 29, 1906. His tuition-free school never did open.