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Henry D. Perky, the Shredded Wheat King

Henry D. Perky (1843-1906), a lawyer, businessman, railroad builder, and promoter, is best remembered for his invention of shredded wheat, a ready-to-eat cereal that revolutionized the way Americans ate breakfast. Less known is Perky's early Nebraska background and his promotion of a cylindrical steel railroad car, which traversed the state as part of a transcontinental journey in January 1891. The Omaha Daily Bee on January 16 reported:

"One of the most convincing proofs of the fact that we are living in the age of steel arrived in Omaha last night at 7 o'clock in the form of a solid steel railway palace coach. The magnificent structure is the property of the Steel car company of New York city and it is the only steel railway car in existence at present. . . . Mr. Perky [the company president] is making a trip to Denver to look after some important business there relating to the organization of an immense iron and steel plant, and possibly the establishment of a steel car manufactory. It is the intention of the company to locate at least two steel car manufactories in the west. One will no doubt be located at Chicago and the other either in Omaha or Denver.

"Mr. Perky was formerly a resident of Nebraska. He studied law in 1868 in General [John C.] Cowin's office, and soon afterward he located in Fremont. He was a member of the state legislature in 1874-75 [1875-77] and later he became the attorney for the Union Pacific and had charge of the right of way subsidies secured in the construction of the Republican Valley & Omaha railway." Perky was living at Wahoo on September 1, 1874, when the town was incorporated and was a member of the village board. The first issue of The Independent, of which he was publisher and proprietor, appeared there on September 16, 1875. Because of declining health, Perky left Nebraska for Colorado about 1880.

Perky's grand plans for the manufacture of steel railway cars were never realized. A fire in 1889 had destroyed the St. Joseph, Missouri, factory of the Steel Car Company and a transcontinental tour (that passed through Omaha) with the sole remaining car in 1891 attracted much attention but no orders. The car was exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where Perky and a William H. Ford also displayed a machine for making shredded wheat biscuits. (One popular story indicates that Perky earlier got the idea for shredded wheat in the dining room of a Nebraska hotel after observing another diner eating boiled wheat with cream.) The cereal proved more lucrative than the rail car, which was abandoned at the fairgrounds at the close of the exposition. Perky went on to become a pioneer of the "cookless breakfast food," and it was he who first mass produced and nationally distributed ready-to-eat cereal.


Henry D. Perky. From The Worcester of eighteen hundred and ninety-eight: fifty years a city: a graphic presentation of its institutions, industries and leaders (1899).

 

 

(February 2011)

 

 

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