Regardless of what you do for a living, if you live in Northfield, you are aware that Malt-O-Meal is one of our largest industries.
Recently the Northfield Historical Society presented a program, "The History of Malt-O-Meal," with a former senior vice president, Donavon Pautzke, speaking. The program, incidentally, drew a record crowd for the series of Northfield historical presentations.
I suppose none of us has ever given much thought to what our ancestors ate for breakfast. But pioneers who were engaged in heavy work all day, probably ate meat, potatoes and gravy in the morning as well as at other meals. It was the Kelloggs, who had health spas, who introduced the idea of eating grains, Pautzke revealed.
Meanwhile a man named John Campbell was building roads and clearing rights of way in Minneapolis. He once owned a hunk of what is now Lake Street. His son Lawrence went into milling. And his son John was the father of Malt-O-Meal.
A graduate of Macalester, he served as a first lieutenant in the infantry in the Panama Canal Zone during World War I. When he came home in 1919, he had $800 that he had won gambling, Pautzke told us. Throughout his life, he engaged in another kind of gambling and was usually successful.
Working in Owatonna, he started experimenting with farina, a starchy part of cereal grain that could, when cooked, resemble wallpaper hanging paste. Campbell decided to flavor it with malt, toasting the malt before mixing it with the farina. While farina took 30 minutes to cook, Campbell precooked it so that the cereal could be cooked in three minutes. He actually worked out a formula that is still used today for the hot Malt-O-Meal cereal, although now some vitamins are added.
Pautzke described John Campbell as a person who "never pulled anything on anybody." He mentioned that Campbell pioneered on a profit-sharing program for employees.
He mentioned that Campbell had a great sense of humor and would tell jokes when discussions became tense.
And then Pautzke told something that we could laugh at, although it certainly was not funny at the time.
It seems that in those early days of the cereal manufacture, Campbell took his turn at dumping farina into the hopper. One day he was bushed and lay down on some sacks adjacent to the hopper. His rest was disturbed by the presence of a man in a white uniform.
On inquiring who was the man, Campbell learned that he was a government inspector who had been told that there were rats in the cereal plant. "Oh, no, there are not," Campbell assured him. "The cat got all of them." And, of course, to a government inspector, a cat was no more welcome than a rat.
At Owatonna, Campbell operated his cereal company in a rented former creamery -- it cost $11 a month. And Campbell did about everything himself. Eventually he needed more room and moved to the Simpson Mill. He outgrew that too and in 1927 moved to the Ames Mill in Northfield which belonged to his father.
He bought equipment then that was still running 60 years later. The problem was, of course, that when a part wore out, the manufacturer no longer had a replacement and the part had to be made in a foundry.
For several years, the farina could be purchased from mills along the Cannon River. But as the milling industry consolidated in Minneapolis, Campbell moved his Malt-O-Meal offices to Minneapolis to be close to farina availability, also close to the market in which to sell cereal. At that time he hired Joe Lucius -- whom many of us old timers remember -- to run production here.
In 1939 the company bought equipment to make corn flakes. But World War II developed not long afterward and the quality of corn needed for corn flakes was not available. So the corn flake equipment was used for a line of dog food that could be made from poorer corn. The equipment was eventually sold to a company somewhere in Africa.
In 1961 chocolate Malt-O-Meal was invented and that has continued to be popular.
In 1965 the company bought what had been the plant for evaporated Northfield Milk and Carnation Milk, located on West Fifth Street. It was then that the company bought puffing equipment.
There proved to be an unexpected benefit from producing the lightweight cereal. Malt-O-Meal is costly to ship, it is so heavy and the boxes can't be stacked very high in the railroad box car or truck. The light weight puffed cereals can be piled on top of it, filling up the space.
Between Malt-O-Meal products and private label products, the company now produces 29 products.
Pautzke recalled that Campbell used to peddle cereals out of his car. There was a time he distributed sample packs door to door and sold directly to grocery stores. Grocers also liked to pass out samples.
Eventually Campbell hired brokers to sell the cereal. And for a long time the company has had a sales force.
In 1925 something new was tried. Malt-O-Meal advertised on a children's radio program, "Steamboat Bill," on WLS, Chicago. I remember we used to pull that station in on our early radios though I do not remember the steamboat program. At any rate, steamboat whistles were included in Malt-O-Meal boxes.
A piece of company lore: One of the women who put the gifts in the packages sometimes put several whistles in one package. She explained that she came from a large family and it would have been a thrill to be able to give a whistle to each kid.
There was a period during which the company tried making soybean products, but they proved to be labor intensive. What's more, they became rancid easily. The company also once made popcorn balls. Someone bought that process and is still making popcorn balls -- but much smaller ones than MOM made.
Trucks eventually became the favorite shipping means. By rail it took three to four weeks to get the cereal from Northfield to Los Angeles; by truck, from Monday to Wednesday. The company now ships 400 semi loads a week.
Pautzke asked for a show of hands of all who had bought gasoline from Campbell's service station while it was in existence. There were a lot of hands.
The station was located in the northwest corner of Ames Mill in the days that TH 218 went right by the place, along Water Street and across the central bridge to Division. It opened in 1932 when
Campbell talked his Owatonna friend, Harold Starks, into coming here to operate it. Many of you know that Starks met and married Margaret Phillips after he came here. He has been dead for several years and Margaret just died during this past year.
The station was open 24 hours seven days a week. Complete service was offered, everything about the car being checked over. There was no cash register in the place as the attendants carried the change in their pockets.
In the mid 1970s when there was a gas shortage, it was decided that the station should run only during the daytime. The powers-that-be were startled to discover that there were no locks on the doors to the station.
Pautzke also recalled the giant electrical sign, "Malt-O-Meal Cereal," that was once atop Ames Mill. You could see the light clear to Dundas. The company had signed a 10-year lease for the sign and when time came for renewal, it had been learned that the sign did not comply size wise with Northfield's new sign ordinance. Malt-O-Meal learned that the sign could be "grandfathered in," but decided not to renew the lease.
Pautzke also talked about the dam in the Cannon River next to Ames Mill. At first the dam was made of wood, but it was replaced by a concrete dam in about 1920. The dam belongs to Malt-O-Meal.
There never was a water wheel on the exterior of the mill, Pautzke revealed. It was located inside the building, in the basement. The portion of the building that is now the office was once the boiler room, generating electricity.
To reduce transportation costs, there is now a plant in Utah and a minor one in Iowa. But the significant production is still here. Pautzke noted that while there were once 26 employees here, there are now 900. The plant operates in two shifts.
Pautzke said that the company never went into debt. Campbell (who has died) was always able to finance any changes.
Well, there was more than that to Pautzke's presentation, but I'll bet you didn't know all the things I jotted down during the evening.
I forgot to mention that at the same time the company made popcorn balls, it made popcorn Easter bunnies. I vaguely remember those. Pautzke joked about trying to sell a popcorn Easter bunny the day after Easter.