Named for a skirmish between a government land surveyor and two Indians which took place seven miles away and almost 175 years ago, Battle Creek is proud of its rich and varied past. Known in different eras of its history as the Queen City, Health City and the International City, today Battle Creek is Cereal City, the "best known city of its size in the country."
The village of Battle Creek began as a market and mill center for prairie farmers. By the last part of the nineteenth century, the city developed into a major industrial center supplying a variety goods, including agricultural machinery, steam pumps, violin strings and newspaper printing presses, to markets around the world.
Currently an international business center and amateur sports capital, Battle Creek was once a health and diet reform mecca for the chronically ill.
As the birthplace of the cereal industry, Battle Creek was known around the world. As an army town, it was the basic training site for American soldiers during both world wars, and the home of the famous Percy Jones Orthopedic Hospital.
We invite you to explore Battle Creek's interesting -- and somewhat unconventional -- past with us and to discover the many faces of its rich heritage. These faces include former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Seventh-day Adventist visionary Ellen White, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg who transformed health care in the nineteenth century and cereal industry magnates C. W. Post and W. K. Kellogg.
When pioneer land speculator Sands McCamly stood at the confluence of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo rivers in 1831, he knew he had found an ideal location for a settlement. Other pioneering families, including many Quakers from upper New York state, agreed. By the 1840s the village, then known as Milton, was thriving. Growing rapidly as a grain, flour and saw mill center for area farmers, the village changed its name to Battle Creek and incorporated as a town in 1859.
With the coming of the railroad, the fast-growing local industries found national markets. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Battle Creek grew into a city of more than 22,000 inhabitants. It was the home of Nichols & Shepard and Advance threshing machine companies, supplying agricultural implements to farmers of the great plains of America and Russia. Duplex Printing Press Company, inventors and manufacturers of newspaper printing presses, shipped their mammoth machines around the world. Union Steam Pump and American Marsh Pump Company supplied hydraulic pumps for the industrialized world. V. C. Squier was a pioneer in creating an American company which produced violins and instrumental strings for musicians around the world.
From its earliest days, Battle Creek has welcomed social and religious non-conformists. Quaker pioneer Erastus Hussey operated a station on the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves reach freedom in Canada. In the last years of the nineteenth century, the town became a Spiritualist center, where séances and "table knocking" were common, if inexplicable, phenomena.
Sojourner Truth, nationally known as a charismatic speaker for abolition and women's rights, visited Battle Creek in 1856. She was impressed with the people she met and moved here a year later. For the next 27 years, the illiterate ex-slave made Battle Creek her home, as she continued to travel the country, agitating for human rights for black and white alike.
For the first ten years she lived in the area, Truth had a home in the village of Harmonia, a community of Quakers and Spiritualists a few miles west of Battle Creek (now the location of Fort Custer Industrial Park). In 1867 she and her family moved into town, where she lived until her death in 1883. Sojourner Truth, along with several members of her family, are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, on the east side of the city.
Another non-conformist was attracted by the tolerance and openness of the Battle Creek community in this period. In 1855, a small group of Seventh-day Adventists invited visionary Ellen White, and her husband, Elder James White , to settle here and make the village the headquarters for their new denomination. In the next fifty years, the small band of believers grew to over 200,000 members world-wide. The SDA church initiated an extensive missionary and health education evangelical ministry, established one of the largest printing and publishing houses in the United States , sponsored colleges and medical training institutions and founded a health care facility which became "the largest institution of its kind in the world."
Until the early years of the twentieth century when it decentralized, the SDA church was a major influence in Battle Creek. Centered in the west end of town, known as "Advent Town," the more than 2,000 local church members observed the Sabbath on Saturday. From the 1860s they adhered to revolutionary dietary and health principles, based on the teachings of Ellen White.
These principles were put into practice by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the director of the world-renowned Battle Creek Sanitarium. The "San," as it was known locally, was famous around the world for its water and fresh air treatments, exercise regimens and diet reform. The San doctors were universally recognized for their diagnostic, surgical and medical expertise. In its 65 years of operation under Dr. Kellogg's leadership, the San served thousands of patients, including presidents, kings, movie stars, educators and industrial giants, as well as impoverished charity patients.
One of the first to realize that "you are what you eat," Dr. Kellogg incorporated radical dietary reforms into the San's treatment program. He advocated a lighter, vegetarian diet with no artificial stimulants as a cure for the prevalent 'dyspepsia,' or chronic indigestion. Among several new products developed for this regime was Granose, a ready-to-eat breakfast food made of flaked, baked wheat kernels.
In 1891, a chronically ill middle-aged business failure named C. W. Post came to the San as a patient. While he was there he became fascinated by the marketing potential of the new health foods, including a grain-based coffee substitute. When he left the hospital, Post opened his own spa, LaVita Inn, serving his version of the beverage which he called Postum. A few years later he developed Grape-Nuts cereal.
Through canny salesmanship and bold advertising campaigns, Post became a millionaire and inspired a host of imitators. In the first decade of the twentieth century Battle Creek was home to a "cereal boom." There were more than 80 cereal companies in some stage of existence, manufacturing products made from corn, wheat, rice or oats and flavored with everything from apples to celery.
During this whole time, W. K. Kellogg was working diligently for his older brother at the Sanitarium. But by 1906 he decided he was ready to form his own cereal business -- the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company. Kellogg used extensive and innovative advertising to make his distinctive signature and the Sweetheart of the Corn universally recognizable. To families everywhere, "Kellogg's of Battle Creek" meant cereal.
Most of the small cereal companies disappeared by 1910, but Battle Creek remained the cereal capital of the world as Kellogg, Ralston and Post products became staples on the breakfast tables around the world.
During World War I Battle Creek was the second home to the "doughboys" who passed through the Army training center at Camp Custer. Thousands of young American men received their first taste of military life here and sampled the generous hospitality of the townspeople. Renamed Fort Custer, the base was reactivated during World War II. In addition to serving as a basic training location, the Fort was an internment center for German Prisoners of War.
Hundreds of wounded World War II GI's were sent to Percy Jones Army Hospital for rehabilitation. By the end of the war, it was the largest medical installation operated by the Army and specialized in amputations, neuro-surgery, deep X-ray therapy and plastic artificial eyes. In the decade it was open , the hospital made a lasting impact on the city. Battle Creek was the first city in America to install wheelchair ramps in its sidewalks, to accommodate the Percy Jones patients when they went downtown.
Battle Creek contains many souvenirs of its rich heritage, including the Victorian Kimball House Museum , the stately mansions of Capital Avenue, NE, cereal workers housing in Post Addition , the Underground Railroad Monument, the Sanitarium building (now used as a Federal Center), and Sojourner Truth's grave in Oak Hill Cemetery. A maquette of a monument to Sojourner Truth was dedicated in September 1998, with the full-size statue installed in 1999.
(prepared by the Heritage Battle Creek - August 1998)