Monday, April 13, 2015

The Adirondack Birthplace of Muffets

1APerky NiagFallsFactoryThe word Muffet conjures different things for different people – the nursery-rhyme reference, of course, and perhaps furry little creatures, maybe because it sounds like Muppets, only smaller, like Smurf-sized. Muffets are actually something that most of us have eaten (if not a Muffet, then one of its close relatives). They’re the round version of shredded wheat biscuits, and who among us hasn’t tried some type of shredded-wheat cereal at one time or another?

For that pleasure we have the Perky family to thank, specifically Henry Perky, inventor of shredded wheat (in 1890 or thereabouts) and the machines that produced it. His plan was to sell the automated machinery, but shredded wheat itself unexpectedly became a phenomenon, despite the fact that eating it was likened to “eating a whisk broom” by none other than John Harvey Kellogg. When boxes of the stuff continued flying off the shelves, Kellogg changed his tune and offered to purchase the patent. Henry declined.

The cereal business earned Perky lasting fame and fortune, although he had already attained levels of success in other areas. Ahead of Kellogg, Post, and all others, Henry Perky is the originator of the cookless breakfast cereal.

In the early 1900s, Perky’s factory was located in Niagara Falls, but equipment from his Cereal Machine Company was also leased to producers in Colorado Springs and Denver. The Perkys lived in Denver, which is where son Scott, the main subject of this piece, was born in 1880. Despite widely disseminated stories that shredded wheat was created by his father to address his own troubled health, Scott maintained that a New England doctor “recommended a diet of thoroughly cooked whole wheat,” and that his father’s goal was to make it palatable, resulting in a successful commercial product.

Scott’s youth was unorthodox, to say the least. He was still a pre-teen when shredded wheat was developed, but the process was very familiar to a boy who “worked and played in my father’s laboratory. I grew up under the influence of his enthusiasm, worked in every department of his factory.”

In his late teens, evidence that the son was carrying on the father’s work was provided at a banquet Scott hosted at the New Era Cooking School in Worcester, Massachusetts. The menu of vegetables and other healthy foods included soup with shredded wheat croutons, creamed spinach on shredded wheat toast, fricasseed chicken on shredded wheat toast, shredded wheat brown bread cheese sandwiches, and wheat shred drink.

The unusual food items were less remarkable than the reason for the event, a send-off for Scott’s around-the-world trip, set to begin the next day. But this wasn’t just a lark for some indulgent, wealthy boy. The purpose of the journey was to study the foods and eating habits of other countries and of “great men in history.”

At seventeen, he seemed much too young for such an undertaking. But he was also considered an expert in his field from having worked with his father, who was dispatching his son on a lengthy mission with a purpose. An eloquent statement regarding his work suggested that the youthful Scott was up to the task.

“Natural food … builds the harmonious body, the true foundation of practical education and business success. I am going abroad to search the libraries and take advantage of every possible bit of information…. I shall endeavor to make known to the public the value of proper food. I have determined to make this my life work, having recognized the great importance of the food subject…. I left school that I might earlier fit myself for my chosen vocation. I have investigated the food subject with my father.”

His itinerary included London, the Netherlands, Belgium, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Constantinople, Athens, Cairo, Rome, Berne, Madrid, Lisbon, Edinburgh, Christiania, Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and other cities. Letters of introduction from the governor and other officials would help pave the way.

Scott was intrigued by the fact that in America, in just one state “where are found the finest colleges, schools, and other institutions of education; where science, art and music are at their zenith, with the wealth of culture that comes with time” – still one of every five children died under the age of one, most people were sick with something or other, and there were more drugstores than food stores.

The next decade of his life was eventful, beginning with the world trip in 1898. In 1903, he sought a patent for an unusual invention, a symmetrical font that would change the way people read. Symmetrical characters meant that when readers reached the end of a line, they could drop to the next line and read from right to left, and so on. Since you’re reading this from left to right, we’ll assume it never caught on.

At the time, he was attending Cornell University, furthering his study of foods. Between the death of his father in 1906 and his mother in 1908, Scott was nearly killed in an earthquake that struck Jamaica, where he and his mother had spent the winter. He was trapped in rubble in Kingston, but was finally rescued before a nearby fire reached him.

And, as for inheritance upon his father’s death, a surprise was due. According to Henry Perky’s biographer, Jim Holechek, the father left nothing to his son, wanting him to forge a life on his own.

With a solid background from the family business and the overseas trip, Scott developed a strong interest in the co-op movement. In 1913, he sought a patent for “a machine making cellular biscuits,” but between the years 1908 and 1918, he was busy delivering many lectures across the country to Granges and other associations on the value of co-ops. For a couple of years he served as secretary of the National Co-operative League of America, edited the organization’s magazine, and was a frequent lecturer.

His life took a somewhat different direction in June 1919 when he married Katherine de Selding of New York City. Perky’s new wife was the daughter of a family prominent in the city’s real estate business, particularly in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where they owned many properties.

It was serendipity that brought Scott Perky to the Adirondack region. Katherine had spent summers at Port Kent on Lake Champlain, and when she brought her new husband there, he fell in love with the North Country. In 1919, just four months after their marriage, they purchased the Rufus Prescott home on Liberty and Hill Streets in Keeseville and settled in.

The Perkys remained part of the social scene in New York City, and joined the same in their new home village. For years they made regular trips to visit family in New York, and frequently hosted family members in Keeseville. As wealthy socialites, they traveled often, but Keeseville was home for several years.

Next week, the conclusion: Scott Perky hits it big.

Photo: Henry Perky’s shredded wheat factory in Niagara Falls, early 1900s.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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