Mark J. Price
Did you ever want to own a little piece of land in the country?
The Quaker Oats Co. had just the place in the 1950s. It wasn’t easy to visit, but it was free property — with a tiny catch.
Roughly 3,573 miles northwest of Akron, in a rugged landscape of natural wonder and bitter cold, the cereal company purchased 19.11 wilderness acres in the Yukon Territory of Canada to divide into parcels to give away to customers.
Development was unlikely. Each tract was one square inch!
Chicago advertising executive Bruce Baker came up with the strange-but-true giveaway in 1954 to promote Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, a radio show that Quaker Oats sponsored Tuesday and Thursday nights on the Mutual Broadcasting System. Children huddled around radios to listen to the exciting adventures of Preston, a dashing officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who relentlessly pursued lawbreakers with the assistance of wonder dog Yukon King and trusty horse Rex.
“On, Kiiiiing!!!” Preston shouted as he mushed his sled team through the snow. “On, you huuuuuskies!”
Actor Paul Sutton provided the Mountie’s voice, but the radio program was only a few months away from being retired in favor of a CBS-TV version starring Dick Simmons in a red uniform and Stetson hat.
“This is the Yukon, the territory patrolled by Sgt. Preston, where man and nature combine pitilessly to defeat the weak and the artless,” a solemn narrator intoned.
After justice ruled triumphant, each show ended with Preston saying to his dog: “Well, King, this case is closed.”
Through its Klondike Big Inch Land Co. subsidiary, Quaker Oats instructed children to fill out an order blank and mail one box top from Quaker Puffed Wheat, Quaker Puffed Rice or Muffets Shredded Wheat to receive a deed to one square inch near Dawson City, a hub during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s.
Sure, it was only one square inch, but maybe that inch contained a gold nugget!
“Nothing is stranger … or stronger … than the lust men have for gold,” the company cooed in its promotion. “In the Gold Rush, men fought the wildest country on earth and the most savage of climates to get to the Klondike where your land is. During the winter, the only way to the gold fields was by ‘mushing’ for week after week. The more fortunate were aided by dog teams pulling sleds. No one knows how many brave men died along the frozen Yukon River that runs past your land.”
Dangers in the wild
The wilderness teemed with grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and other wildlife. In the winter, temperatures fell to 70 degrees below zero.
“Your land gets colder than it ever gets even at the North Pole,” Quaker Oats warned. “If you were on your property in temperatures like this, it would be dangerous to take deep breaths!”
The promotion was a big deal in Akron, where Quaker Oats employed nearly 1,000 people in a dozen downtown buildings, the company’s largest U.S. operation outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Grain was stored in silos off South Broadway and whisked through underground pipes to the cereal plant on South Howard Street.
In January 1955, the company began distributing 21 million deeds. The yellow-framed, individually numbered certificates carried a corporate seal, a logo of a prospector panning for gold and a place for the owner to sign his or her name.
Children needed a lawyer to understand the 5- by 8-inch document, which was filled with “admeasurements,” “hereditaments,” “appurtenances” and other legalistic jargon.
The deed noted: “Witnesseth that the Grantor for good and valuable consideration now paid by the Grantee to the Grantor (the receipt whereof is hereby by it acknowledged) doth grant, bargain, sell, alien, enfeoff, release, remise, convey and confirm until the Grantee, his heirs and assigns forever and estate in fee simple.”
Buried deep in the language was an admission that the transaction was subject to “a perpetual easement for ingress and egress, to, from, over and upon the tract herein conveyed for the use of the owner or owners of all other tracts of the land and premises herein described.”
In other words, other landowners might step on your inch to reach their inch — if they could even find their inch.
An avalanche of mail
Quaker Oats wasn’t prepared for the popularity of its cereal premium as tens of thousands of box tops flooded the corporate offices within the first month.
In February 1955, the Ohio Securities Division ruled that Quaker couldn’t trade a square inch of the Yukon for a box top until it received a state license for the “sale” of foreign land.
The company eliminated the box-top requirement and simply gave away a deed in every box of breakfast cereal until the promotion ended a few months later.
Some kids lost their deeds. Some put them away and forgot about them. Some collected them and tried to build estates.
In January 1965, the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. dissolved and allowed its Yukon land to revert back to the Canadian government because of nonpayment of $40 in taxes.
For decades, the Sgt. Preston promotion haunted Quaker Oats, which answered a steady stream of correspondence from people inquiring about the value of the old deeds. The company wouldn’t give an inch.
“The problem is not with those who first got the deeds in the cereal packages, but with those who have gotten them secondhand and believe they are worth something,” Quaker Oats legal department spokesman Vern Thomas told a reporter in 1971. “The deeds are worthless. They have never been of any value except as a promotional gimmick by our merchandising people.”
Many comical stories arose about the documents. One kid mailed four toothpicks to Quaker Oats and asked to build a fence around his land. A man offered to donate 3 square inches for use as a national park.
“One guy went all over the United States collecting the deeds,” Thomas recalled. “He finally ended up with 10,880. It amounted to about 75 square feet of land and he wrote us wanting to know if he could consolidate his holdings into one big chunk. He said he would prefer a piece of land near the water and as quiet as possible.”
Thomas wasn’t entirely correct. The deeds do have value.
Today, memorabilia dealers occasionally dust them off and sell them on Internet auction sites. The documents can fetch anywhere from $10 to $30 as baby boomers seek nostalgic reminders of childhood.
If you believe the deeds are worth more than that, well, we have a little land to offer you in the Yukon.
As Sgt. Preston would say: “Well, King, this case is closed.”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book to be published in March by the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.