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A Brief History of Battle Creek

By Mary G. Butler & Elizabeth Neumeyer 

 

 

Battle Creek’s heritage is rich and varied, making it one of the most historically distinctive communities in the country.  Known across the globe as the breakfast cereal capital of the world, Battle Creek was also the cradle of the Seventh-day Adventist religion, the chosen home of social justice activist Sojourner Truth and a major stop on the Underground Railroad. 

 

During the past 175 years Battle Creek has evolved from a small pioneer settlement to a village of progressive social reformers and an international industrial center.

 

To trace the history of the city, it is important to begin at the beginning, long before men walked the land.

 

The Geology of Battle Creek
In a 1907 souvenir photo booklet of Battle Creek, the authors speak of a “beautiful and prosperous city” thriving in the valley of two rivers, the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.  They describe charming lakes, rich agricultural fields, and other important features.  The beauties they describe were formed over eons of geologic time, but especially in more recent glacial periods.  As the sometimes two-mile thick glaciers advanced and receded, they carved out the many distinctive surface features of the Battle Creek landscape.  The hills around Battle Creek are actually glacial formations called moraines.  When you drive from the Mill Pond up to Columbia on Riverside, you are actually climbing the Battle Creek Moraine.  When you follow Morgan Road, you are going parallel to the Kalamazoo Moraine.  When you enjoy a view of Goguac Lake, you are looking at a glacially formed body of water. 

 

The flat area of Battle Creek is an “outwash plain,” meaning glacial material washed out of the melt water becoming the source material for soil.  Oak openings and prairies flourished in outwash plains.  These features attracted Native Americans and Euro-Americans to settle here. 

 

The First People
As the last glacier began to melt about 16,000 years ago, it left a tundra-like climate that attracted caribou.  About 14,000 years ago, the first people, the Paleo-Indians, followed these animals into the area.  They were nomadic peoples who lived in small bands hunting and gathering.  As the climate warmed, more forest fauna appeared.   Different groups of Native peoples now settled in this area, starting perhaps 11,000 years ago with a cultural group called Archaic.  They were a more sedentary people, hunting white tail deer as their primary source of meat.  The technology of these people continued to advance.  By 500 B.C. the Woodland cultural period predominated.  They developed pottery and much more elaborate horticulture, including raised bed fields and corn. 

 

Meanwhile another group of people were beginning a migration from the Atlantic coast up the St. Lawrence River valley.  These people eventually settled in what we call southern Michigan, northern Indiana, central and northern Illinois and Wisconsin.  They became known as the Potawatomi, the Keepers of the Fire. 

 

When this area became part of the United States, these Native people, including the Potawatomi, were subject to the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  Systematic treks forced many Indians to migrate to western areas.  One small group of six Potawatomi families, led by Chief Moguago, escaped.  In the 1840s they came back to Calhoun County and gained land in the Athens area.  Today the descendants of these families live in the Pine Creek reservation. In 1995 they gained federal recognition as the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians.  

 

The “battle at the creek”
The story of white settlement of the Battle Creek area begins in 1825 when government surveyors were working near a stream about 8 miles northeast of the present city of Battle Creek.  On March 14 two Potawatomi Indians appeared at the base camp, asking for food.  A protracted, contentious discussion ended when the surveyors produced a rifle and settled the argument by subduing the Indians.  After reporting the skirmish to the Territorial Governor, the surveyors left the field and returned to Detroit.  A subsequent survey team remembered the incident and assigned the name “Battle Creek” to the stream where the altercation took place. 

 

Founding a village
In 1831, after the government survey was finally completed, land in southwestern Michigan was offered for sale at $1.25 an acre.  Jonathan Guernsey (a former surveyor) was only one of several pioneers to file a claim for the land at the confluence of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo rivers.  When his wife refused to move to the wilderness, Guernsey was forced to sell his claim to Nathanial Barney and Sands McCamly.  Barney eventually sold his half to Quaker pioneers, Isaac, Abraham and Joseph Merritt and their brother-in-law, Jonathan Hart. 

 

The potential water power available from the six-foot drop between the two rivers made the site attractive.  Sands McCamly, who had retained the water power rights to the entire area, immediately began to capitalize on this potential.  In 1835 he built a mill race between the two rivers, providing power for the first industries in the developing village. At its height, the mill race and later tail races and mill pond powered 18 businesses, including a wagon shop, an iron foundry as well as grain, saw, knitting and flour mills.

 

The Michigan Central railroad arrived in town in 1845 and was welcomed as the harbinger of prosperity and commercial development.  Distant markets were now open to local industries.  The Peninsular (later Grand Trunk) railroad soon connected Battle Creek to Canada and Chicago.  The two competing rail lines bracketed the north and south edges of the downtown business and factory district.

 

As the city commercial center expanded, industries grew along the railroad lines and waterways.  Small shops became thriving factories which grew into large industrial plants.  By the turn of the century, heavy industrial factories ringed to downtown area, from Nichols and Shepard on the east to Advance Thresher and Duplex to the west.  Two large steam pump factories were located between the rivers, at the northern and southern edges of the central downtown.

 

A buffer zone developed just to the north of the Battle Creek River, separating the spewing smokestacks of the bustling downtown from the quiet sanctuary of the elegant northside residential district. This area along Van Buren Street is the site of several of the large mainline churches and educational buildings.

 

The Freedom City
In its earliest years Battle Creek was known as a welcoming haven for freedom seekers, free thinkers and rebels.  The Quakers who founded the settlement created an atmosphere which was unusually tolerant of different points of view and encouraged non-traditional attitudes.

 

Anti-slavery sentiment flourished here and Battle Creek soon became one of the important stops on the “Quaker Route” of the Michigan Underground Railroad.  Many fleeing slaves crossed into the free territory of the North across the Ohio River.  Most wished to travel even further north, away from the danger of pursuing slave catchers.  These freedom seekers had two choices.  The first was to proceed straight north through Ohio and across Lake Erie into Canada.  The other primary route to Canada led west through Ohio to Indiana and Michigan.  The “Quaker Route” began in Indiana and traveled through Cass County in southern Michigan, then north through Schoolcraft to Battle Creek.  The route then turned east through Marshall to Detroit, where the refugees crossed over to the safety of Canada.

 

Quakers Erastus and Sarah Hussey, commemorated on the Battle Creek Underground Railroad monument, were the local conductors who assisted more than 1,000 fugitives to freedom between 1840 and 1855. Many of these freedom seekers chose to stay in Battle Creek instead of continuing to Canada.  They built homes, established churches and founded businesses as they integrated themselves into the fabric of the city.

 

A committed abolitionist and activist, Hussey also edited The Liberty Press, Michigan’s anti-slavery newspaper, and was active in local, state and national Republican politics.  As a state Senator, he authored Michigan’s Personal Liberty Law, to counter the onerous provisions of the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Law.

 

The Home of Sojourner Truth
Abolitionist and champion of human rights, Sojourner Truth was arguably the most famous African American woman in 19th century America.  She made Battle Creek her home for the last 26 years of her life.  Truth was born about 1797 as Isabella, a slave in New York State.  In her mid-thirties, already the mother of four living children, she walked away to freedom. She spent the next few years in New York City, until she found her public voice in 1843.  She changed her name to Sojourner, a traveler, and Truth, intending to proclaim the truth around the land.

 

For the next forty years she delivered her message of freedom and justice to audiences in more than 20 states.  Invited to speak to a Battle Creek Quaker group in 1856, Truth apparently found a welcoming, tolerant atmosphere in the west Michigan village.  She moved here the next year.  For ten years she lived in Harmonia, a settlement six miles west of town, now the site of Fort Custer Industrial Park.  In 1867 she moved into downtown Battle Creek (near the present site of Battle Creek Central High School), where she lived until her death in 1883.

 

The Seventh-day Adventists and the Sanitarium
It was in Battle Creek that the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church grew from a few scattered followers to one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations. The first known Sabbath-keeping Adventist to come to Battle Creek and win any converts was Joseph Bates, who visited in 1852.  By 1855 there were a few Seventh-day Adventists living in the west end of town.  They invited Ellen and James White, the leaders of the young church, to bring their struggling preaching and publishing ministry to Battle Creek. 

 

As the tiny, but energetic, group grew in numbers and influence, it remained concentrated in the city’s west end, or Advent Town. Battle Creek was soon known as the “town with two Sabbaths,” with the unofficial line of demarcation on West Michigan Avenue near the confluence of the two rivers.

 

Battle Creek soon became the national and international headquarters of the SDA church and it’s publishing division. Between 1855 and 1902 the Review and Herald Publishing Company annually produced thousands of religious books and tracts in more than 15 languages, spreading the word of the church around the world and supporting a far-flung missionary effort.

 

Ellen White, the spiritual leader of the church, had a series of visions which informed church policy.  She began receiving visions on health care and diet reform in 1863.  Her vision on Christmas Day 1865 led the church to establish the Western Health Reform Institute.  The Institute was intended to be a “water cure and vegetarian institution where a properly balanced God-fearing course of treatments could be made available not only to Adventists but to the public generally – and where they could not only be treated with sensible remedies but also taught how to take care of themselves and thus prevent sickness.”

 

The newly-graduated Dr. John Harvey Kellogg took over leadership of the small Health Institute a decade later and transformed the water cure establishment into the world-renown Battle Creek Sanitarium or “San.”  Guided by Ellen White’s precepts, Dr. Kellogg developed a series of treatments which attracted patients and guests from around the world.  The primary treatment was hydro-therapy, using over 200 variants of the water cure. 

 

Exercise was also an important component, employing indoor and outdoor gyms and swimming pools as well as the famous “hop on the top,” marching to music on the roof of the San at the end of the treatment day. The surgical and obstetrical departments were legendary for their low mortality rates.  The diagnostic and health education programs were also significant elements in the success of the San.

 

But the most innovative and influential aspect of the San treatment program was diet reform. In his effort to cure chronic “dyspepsia,” the prevailing ailment of the era, Dr. Kellogg developed a strict diet prohibiting alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and meat.  John Harvey, his brother, W. K. and his wife Ella Eaton, director of the San experimental kitchen, developed several new health foods, including peanut butter, grain-based coffee substitutes, Granola and Granose, the first flaked cereal. 

 

The ready-to-eat breakfast cereal industry, which made Battle Creek famous as both the “Health City” and the “Cereal City” in the early 20th century, was the direct result of these first experiments in the San kitchen. 

 

C. W. Post and the “cereal boom”
C. W. Post was a middle-aged, chronically ill business failure when he came to the San in 1891.  He did not find a cure there, but he did find his life’s work.  Intrigued by the marketing potential of the health foods he was served at the San, Post approached Dr. Kellogg about commercializing the products.  When his idea was rebuffed, Post determined to create his own versions of the San’s coffee substitute and cereals.

 

In 1892 Post bought a farm on the east side of town and opened his own health spa, LaVita Inn.  He sold building lots to finance his experimental food laboratory.  By the end of 1894 Post had formulated Postum, a coffee substitute beverage made from wheat, bran and molasses.  Convinced that “the sunshine that makes a business grow is advertising,” Post was one of the first to use extensive retail promotion to sell a food product. 

 

His faith in the power of advertising proved to be well-founded.  By 1900 Post became a millionaire through sales of Postum and Grape-Nuts, his whole wheat and malted barley cereal product.

 

The fortune Post amassed in just a few short years inspired scores of would-be millionaires, who saw the new cereal industry as a ticket to instant wealth.  In the first decade of the 20th century, more than 40 different companies appeared and disappeared in town.  Many dreamers invested their life savings, starting cereal businesses in sheds, tents and their home kitchens.  Some never survived the organizational stage, failing even before the manufacturing process commenced.  However, a wide variety of products were actually made from wheat, corn, oats and rice and flavored with malt, sugar, fruits – and even celery!  When the dust settled about 1910, there were only eight companies left, three of which have descendants in town today – Kellogg, Post and Ralston.

 

A secondary result of the cereal boom, and the multiplicity of cereal companies, was the emergence of several support industries.  Firms manufacturing ovens, conveyor belts and other equipment used by cereal companies sprang up around town.  Michigan Carton Company, founded in 1902, still produces cereal boxes, along with a variety of shipping and packaging products.

 

W. K. Kellogg
As the speculators were converging on the “Health City” looking for easy money, W. K. Kellogg was working for his brother at the San.  He, too, had dreams of starting his own company, building on the expertise he had gained in managing the San’s complex business operations.  In 1902 he was finally ready to “go out for himself” when a disastrous fire destroyed the San.  Unable to walk away from his brother and the institution to which he had devoted almost a quarter of a century, W. K. stayed and supervised the rebuilding of the San.  It was not until 1906 that he was able to realize his dream and start the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company.

 

Through the use of sophisticated advertising techniques, technical advances in manufacturing and packaging and a shrewd sense of the public taste, Kellogg soon built a thriving company.  As the company expanded and his personal fortune increased, W. K. became increasingly mindful of the obligations which wealth imposed.  In 1925 he decided to “invest his money in people” and asked three friends to organize the Fellowship Corporation to study the needs of children in the community.  This was the beginning of one of the most far reaching philanthropic efforts in the nation, known since 1930 as the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

 

Many feel that the citizens of Battle Creek escaped the worst effects of the Depression, partially due to the creative work of W. K. Kellogg, the Kellogg Company and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.  In 1930 the Kellogg Company adopted a six-hour work day and added a fourth shift, to increase the factory’s work force by 25%, while still keeping wages relatively stable.  Work on the W. K. Kellogg Junior High School and Auditorium began in 1932, to create construction jobs for local men. 

 

In addition, since cereal was a relatively inexpensive, good tasting and filling food, Battle Creek’s cereal companies were busy during the 1930s, keeping thousands of local men and women employed during the 1930s.

 

An Industrial Boom Town

As famous as cereal made Battle Creek at the turn of the century, the city was already well known around the nation and abroad as a major manufacturing center -- long before the Kelloggs and C. W. Post were transforming grains into healthy breakfasts.

 

The 1870s and 80s were boom years for Battle Creek’s industrial sector.  In the twenty years after the end of the Civil War the city’s population doubled.  Factories, most located in the downtown area, provided jobs for anyone who wanted to work.  More than 80 manufacturing companies employed over 700 men, representing half the factory workers in the county. 

 

Nichols and Shepard and Advance Thresher manufactured threshing machines and agricultural machinery, supplying farmers from the American farm belt to the steppes of Russia.  Steam pumps were shipped around the world by American Marsh and Union Steam Pump Company.  Duplex Printing Press Company had a virtual monopoly on the tabloid and medium-sized newspaper market from New York to San Francisco and London.  Scores of other businesses, large and small, manufacturing everything from cigars to opera house furniture, were located in downtown Battle Creek.

 

In 1884 a major Chicago newspaper described Battle Creek, writing: “There is probably no city in the United States of equal size which can lay claim to the fact that the products of its industrial establishments find so universal a demand in so wide a scope of country as those produced in this thriving manufacturing center.” 

 

Technological progress followed economic prosperity.  In the 1870s and 80s Battle Creek saw the arrival of natural gas and telephone service, horse-drawn streetcars, electric lights, free mail service and a municipal water supply. Civic and cultural institutions kept pace. During the 1880s a new high school replaced the old Union School, the Goguac Lake resort area was developed, Battle Creek College opened, the Seventh-day Adventist’s massive “Dime” Tabernacle, St. Thomas Episcopal and St. Philip Catholic churches were dedicated and a natural history museum opened in the high school.  The Battle Creek Sanitarium began its growth into a world-famous institution.

 

A Military Town
The military has been an important presence in Battle Creek since 1917, when Camp Custer was built, almost overnight, to provide basic training for thousands of doughboys.

 

A 1918 souvenir publication described Camp Custer as “a national university that takes the young man from the farm, the shop and the office and, in a few short months, graduates soldiers, trained and equipped, ready to fight the battles of democracy.”

 

In just five short months in 1917 more than 8,000 men worked feverishly to transform 100 farms into one of the 36 national cantonments built to prepare soldiers to fight in World War I.  Between July and December, 2,000 buildings for 36,000 men were built, costing over $8 million. The 8,000 acre site, named for Michigan native General George Armstrong Custer, was a complete, self-sufficient city with its own water and sewer system, central heating plant, hospital, bakery, laundry, theaters, library and even facilities for training horses and mules for army service.  At its peak before the end of the war, the Camp held more than 60,000 soldiers-to-be (130% of the population of the city of Battle Creek).

 

This influx of soldiers had a major impact, both positive and negative, on the civilian city.  The 1918 influenza pandemic swept through both the Camp and the city, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians in just a few days in September.  The city’s residents rallied to make the lonely young recruits feel welcome.  Every church and many factories and businesses organized visiting committees.  Many families entertained the soldiers and invited them home for Sunday dinner.

 

Between the wars the Camp was used as a training base for ORC, ROTC  and several National Guard groups, as well as district headquarters and training center for the CCC. 

 

In 1940 the name was changed to Fort Custer and the site was designated a permanent military reservation.  Another 6,000 acres and additional barracks were added.  During World War II Fort Custer continued to be a training site as well as a processing center for more than 4,000 German POWs. 

 

Another major military installation opened in town in 1942.  The San had gone into receivership during the Depression and its large headquarters building was sold to the federal government and converted into a military hospital.  The Percy Jones Army Hospital treated thousands of orthopedic patients during World War II and the Korean conflict. Once again, the city offered a warm welcome to the soldiers at the Fort and Percy Jones.  Battle Creek is said to be the first city in the nation to install curb cuts in downtown sidewalks, to accommodate the hundreds of amputees who traveled from Percy Jones to the downtown movie theaters each weekend.

 

Local industries also supported the war effort.  About half of Battle Creek’s factory workers were engaged in defense work.  Although the cereal companies continue to produce breakfast food, Kellogg Company also packaged K rations for the Army.  Duplex Printing Press Company switched to manufacturing 37mm anti-tank gun carriages, Nichols and Shepard (now Oliver) produced fuselages for Boeing airplanes, while Union Steam Pump Company supplied the Navy with submarine pumps. 

 

The Post-War City
World War II had transformed Battle Creek with the development of major military installations at Fort Custer and Percy Jones Hospital and the retooling of major industries for war production.  At the end of the war, residents eagerly prepared to return to civilian life and resume their interrupted lives.  Returning GIs completed their education, married, bought houses, established a suburban lifestyle and launched the local version of the post-war baby boom. 

 

The 1950s were years of confidence and building.  The Kellogg Community College campus and the urban renewal-flood control project in the Bottoms were completed.  The new interstate highway system came through Battle Creek and the airport expanded passenger service in a new terminal. In 1956 the city celebrated the anniversary of the Kellogg Company with the first World’s Longest Breakfast Festival. The centennial of incorporation as a city was exuberantly observed in 1959.  The George Award, sponsored by the Battle Creek Enquirer, was instituted to recognize civic-minded citizens.

 

After Percy Jones Army Hospital closed at the end of the Korean War, there was considerable concern locally about the loss of jobs and the fate of the city’s largest building.  Good news came with the announcement that the national offices of the Federal Civil Defense Agency were being moved from Washington, D. C. to Battle Creek.  In addition, the Staff College of the National Civil Defense Training Center was transferred here from Olney, Maryland.

 

The Staff College had a unique mission, to teach local civil defense workers across the country how to protect their home towns from the devastating effects of an atomic blast.  Between 1954 and 1968, over 30,000 resident students attended the Staff College courses in Battle Creek.  In addition, many more volunteers took extension courses sponsored by the Staff College at 52 participating universities and colleges around the country.

 

In the late 1950s and 1960s “rock ‘n roll” music flourished in Battle Creek’s social clubs, which were incubators for future Motown stars.  Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and the All Stars climbed to the top of the charts.  Arts organizations like Community Chorus and the Civic Theater found new life after the war years.  The Art Center moved into a new, permanent home and the Historical Society opened Kimball House Victorian House Museum. The Arts Council, one of the oldest in the state, was formed in 1964 to support area arts agencies.

 

Emerging Economic Problems

But there were also signs of emerging economic problems in the late 1960s.  The exodus of people and businesses to the suburbs accelerated and the downtown steadily declined.  Several of the large urban industries, once the economic backbone of the city, were bought by out of town conglomerates.  The factories closed or moved away, usually to one of the non-union southern states.

 

Abandoned land at Fort Custer provided a potential solution for local leaders.  Led by Mayor Fred Brydges, the city acquired 1800 acres in 1969 for future industrial development.  Battle Creek Unlimited was organized two years later to spearhead the city’s economic revitalization efforts in the Fort Custer Industrial Park.  The Michigan Mall, transforming the major downtown thoroughfare into a pedestrian mall, was opened in 1975.  The cities of Battle Creek and Lakeview voted to merge into one municipality on January 1, 1983.

 

Once called the “Berkley of the Middle West in the 1840s,”  Battle Creek is proud of its progressive past as it faces the economic and social challenges of the 21st century.