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The Origins of the Quaker Oats Co.

Sam MooreMy sister and I used to eat “Rolled Oats” for breakfast in the mornings, and Nancy still often has the same thing for her breakfast. In case anyone wonders where oatmeal and rolled oats came from, I recently came across a story about the life and times of Ferdinand Schumacher, known by contemporaries as “The Oatmeal King.”

Schumacher was born in Germany in 1822, attended school until 15 and then worked in a grocery store. At age 28, Ferdinand emigrated to the U.S. with his brother, and the two bought a small farm near Elyria, Ohio. A year or two later, he left the farm and started a notions store in Akron, which he soon converted to a grocery.

Schumacher had always eaten oatmeal for breakfast in Germany, but he found the only oatmeal available here in the States was imported – and expensive. Being one who squeezed a penny until the Indian squealed, Schumacher refused to pay the price and began to make his own oatmeal. He slowly toasted a pan of oats and then rubbed off the hulls and finely chopped the groats. The chopped oats were then cooked for several hours in an iron pot, and he and his family loved it. As soon as Schumacher’s German customers heard of it they began to ask for it too.

Demand increased and Schumacher opened a small factory to make the stuff sometime in the late 1850s. Most of his customers were still local, but that would change with the coming of the Civil War and the help of a fellow German and good friend, Erhard Steinbacher, a wealthy businessman in Akron.

Steinbacher had come from Bavaria in 1844 and took part in the California Gold Rush in 1849, where he made a bunch of money. In 1851, he returned to Akron, built a large brick building on Main Street, opened a successful grocery and drug store, and became a power in the local Republican Party. Due to his political connections, the Union Army appointed him to buy supplies when the war began.

The new army purchasing agent took care of his local friends and ordered tons of flour from Akron mills. He also pressed the army to buy Schumacher’s oatmeal as breakfast cereal for the troops. The army had been planning to feed them cornmeal, but Steinbacher insisted oatmeal tasted better and was more nourishing – he supposedly also said that cornmeal might be OK for Rebels but not nearly good enough for brave Union soldiers.

The army finally agreed to try 100 barrels of oatmeal. Although it wasn’t very much, it put Schumacher into a real bind to fill the order in time. He recognized his big opportunity however, hired extra people and worked them nonstop to meet the deadline.

Schumacher had anxious moments waiting to hear how his cereal had been accepted by the troops, most of who had never before eaten oatmeal and thought oats were for horses. He need not have worried – they loved it – and the army ordered tons of the stuff. Schumacher kept expanding his mill, which he named the German Mill, and installed modern machinery. The army also needed a source of pearled barley so Schumacher built an entirely new mill on S. Summit Street that he called the Empire Barley Mill, which was completed and in full operation before the end of 1863.

By the time the war ended, Schumacher was considered the wealthiest man in Akron, but although he contributed generously to churches and the temperance movement, he continued his miserly habits, refusing to pay what he considered the high cost for an overcoat and instead wearing only an old wool shawl in the winter. His sons thought this was disgraceful but couldn’t convince the “wealthiest man in Akron” to spring for a new coat. They schemed with a local clothier – the next time Schumacher passed the store, the clothier called him in, showed him a fine new $70 coat and offered it to him for only $20. The boys had agreed to pay the clothier the difference. Of course, Schumacher couldn’t resist the bargain and bought the coat. On his way down the street, proudly wearing his new coat, he met a friend who admired the garment and offered him $40 for it. Schumacher bargained a bit and got the price up to $45 at which point he sold the man the coat, donned his shawl and happily walked off. The sons had to pay the clothier $50 and their Dad still didn’t have a coat.

In 1886, a fire swept through Schumacher’s giant mill, leaving a $600,000 loss. There was no insurance, as Schumacher believed that insuring against such “Acts of God” was blasphemous (plus, insurance cost money) and, although he was still rich, he didn’t have the ready cash to rebuild.

Schumacher’s success had spawned a number of competitors in Akron, the largest and newest of which was the Akron Milling Co. A merger between Schumacher and Akron Milling was worked out and the new firm was called the F. Schumacher Milling Co. with a capitalization of $2 million, and the oatmeal business again boomed.

In 1891 “combine fever” was strong in the country; Schumacher and most of his bigger competitors combined into The American Cereal Co., of which the old man was the president until 1899 (wonder if he still wore his shawl), when the “Oatmeal King” was deposed by some younger and more progressive members of the combine. Instead of barrels, they packed their oat cereal in individual boxes bearing the name “Mother’s Oats.”

In 1901, the Quaker Oats Co. took over and “Quaker Oats” cereal with the picture of the Quaker man on the box became the standard for oatmeal and rolled oats. By 1925, the Quaker Oats Co. was shipping a hundred carloads of cereal each day, but today, although “Mother’s Oats” and “Quaker Oats” cereals are still widely available, I don’t think any of them are made in Akron.

– Sam Moore

Quaker Oats advertisement

A 1905 ad for Quaker Oats (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).