I have no idea how old I was when I first learned about the famed Minnesota scientist and inventor Alex P. Anderson, AKA Puffed Wheat Anderson. My Dad told me about him when I was eating a bowl of cereal, you know, the one that’s shot from guns. Or doesn’t Quaker use that line any more? They sure did when I was growing up. I'd hear it a dozen times in a half hour when I used to listen to Sgt. Preston of the Mounties as a six-years-old. I naturally wondered if he was a relative. He wasn't, but I couldn't imagine how shooting rice or wheat out of a cannon could make them puff up.
I thought of that again as I was shopping in Byerly’s, a local grocery store, and happened to pass by the cereal section. I decided I wanted to find out how it was done so when I got home, I immediately looked up Anderson in Google. I wasn't prepared for the fascinating story surrounding his life and accomplishments. Or the Quaker company's marketing history, for that matter.
It seems that Alex Anderson could have been famous for an entirely different reason. According to a Minnesota Public Radio interview with Robert Hedin, Anderson’s grandson, Master Alex of Goodhue County was the youngster who gave directions to the Jesse James gang about how to get to Northfield, MN. Those of you who aren’t up on your folk history might not know that robbing the Northfield bank was the biggest mistake ole Jesse ever made. Two of his members were killed by the local townspeople and things got so hot that the rest of the gang was lucky to escape with their lives. (An even more interesting coincidence from a personal standpoint, is that the gang camped out on the point in Cedar Lake near Annandale. Our lake cabin was just a couple of hundred yards down the shore from where they cooked a meal and licked their wounds before heading back to Missouri. )
Hedin says that Anderson included an account of the fateful meeting in an essay about Silurian fossils. Alex was also interested in Phrenology and could tell you your personality by feeling the bumps on your head. Even though he was a fine poet and memoirist, his greatest accomplishment was to invent a way to break down the starch in grains by subjecting them to intense heat and pressure, greatly enlarged the kernels in so doing. To do this he devised a large wooden gun. Albert Lasker, an early advertising genius hired by the Quaker company, explained the process. The lab must have been a hundred feet long. The so-called gun was actually a drum that was super-heated with the mouth covered. When it reached the correct temperature, workers removed the cover with a pulley. The grains exploded out and flew wildly around, expanding to eight times its original size in the process. Hedin puts it more colorfully. “It made the lab sound like a battlefield, smell like a bakery and look like a snowy winter morning. ”
Pleased with his invention, Anderson decided to show it off. Puffed rice made its premier appearance at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. A minor hit as a novelty, it also caught the eye of an unnamed executive of the Quaker cereal company in the process.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, cereal was considered to be a health food and the Quaker company saw a virtual gold mine in Anderson's process. They were right, but for the wrong reason. Aftey they bought the rights they spent a considerable amount of money advertising the product to the Japanese. Puffed rice was ordinary rice, they said, but many times larger and it took less to fill you up. Better still, it was delicious. The campaign turned out to be a total flop. Lasker proved that Americans were the right target, so to speak, and under his tutelage ‘shot from guns’ became a household word. No one needs to be reminded that the Quaker company survives to this day selling the same products.
Anderson died in 1943 after donating his house to the Red Wing School District. It turns out that he became a patron of the arts. Now it is a haven for writers and other artists. The Kiwanis hold regular meetings there, making the residents sing for their supper by reading Shelley and William Blake. But that’s not all. If you like modern art or improvisational jazz, you’ll find someone with those talents at the Anderson House. I wonder what Jesse James would have thought of it all.
John Anderson is a Minnesota author who has not spent any time at the Anderson House. His novel, The Cellini Masterpiece, was written under the penname of Raymond John and is a mystery- thriller set on the island of Malta. John invites you to read the first chapter of his book at http://www.cmasterpiece.com. If you have any questions or comments, you may contact him there.