The Road to Wellville


Sojourner Truth's grave, Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek

I visited Battle Creek, Michigan this week, for the first time since I was a child.  I’ve wanted to return ever since I read Nell Painter’s Sojourner Truth:  A Life, A Symbol (1996), when I learned that Battle Creek was Truth’s home for the last decades of her life.  (Truth had also lived in Northampton, Massachusetts–another progressive nineteenth-century American town.)  So we skipped the “Cereal City” sideshow, and went straight to the Oak Hill Cemetery, where we found Truth’s grave, marked by the stone on the left, and the historical marker on the right.  She’s in a fancy neighborhood of this necropolis–right behind C.W. Post’s mausoleum, and across the road from the whole Kellogg clan.

Because of the close associations between protestant evangelical denominations and nineteenth-century reform movements, Battle Creek’s history is inseparable from its history as the birthplace of Seventh Day Adventism, founded by James and Ellen White (1827-1915) in the 1850s.  They’re called co-founders, and James was a preacher and publisher, but it seems that it was Ellen’s visions and writing that were much more foundational to the philosophy and direction of the SDA church.  She is in fact remembered as the central prophet of their denomination by SDAs.  The SDAs were unusual for rejecting not just tobacco and alcohol but also meat–so they were vegetarians in addition to abolitionists and proponents of dress reform (and, of course, observed Saturday as the Sabbath.)  The SDA health regime was foundational to Battle Creek’s world-famous Sanitarium.  Ellen White quite literally made Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who usually gets all of the credit for turning Battle Creek into a fashionable health spa destination with his Sanitarium; it was she who recognized Kellogg’s promise and sent him to medical school.  Fun trivia fact:  Morningstar Farms, which makes all kinds of frozen meatless treats and meat substitutes, is an SDA company named after a mission/schoolhouse steamboat founded by a son of the Whites, who went South after the Civil War to evangelize and educate newly emancipated African American children.  

egwhite-homeWe took the tour offered of Historic Adventist Village, an impressive collection of immaculately maintained original, relocated, and reconstructed buildings (homes, meeting houses, and a school house).  The James and Ellen White house (shown at left) was fascinating for its meticulous restoration as well as for the fact that it commemorated Ellen White’s spiritual leadership of the early SDAs.  The young and knowledgeable tour guide commented in the kitchen that Ellen White didn’t spend much time on domestic duties there, because she was so involved with her writing and speaking.  Then upstairs, he told us that the airy, light room at the front of the house on the second story was hers and hers alone–her husband slept in a tiny bedroom behind hers, because she needed the space for her thinking and writing, and wanted to do so without interruptions from her husband and four sons.  So a generation or two before Virginia Woolf, Ellen White had figured out that “room of her own” thing.  She was in fact the author of 40 books and more than 500 articles.


The Mechanical Camel

Another fascinating stop on the tour was the John Harvey Kellogg Discovery Center, in which you can see a good video covering the history of Kellogg and “the San,” in addition to several of his inventions and pieces of exercise equipment, most of which you can activate by pressing buttons (the light baths and the mechanical horse and mechanical camel), or even sit down and try yourself (the vibrating electro-massage chair and electric foot massager.)  Many of his ideas were pretty kooky (5 enemas a day?), and the electrification of exercise equipment was clearly a techno-fetish of the turn of the twentieth century, but many of his ideas were sound.  By the way, Jazzercize was not the first exercise set to music–Dr. Kellogg thought of that, and directed calisthenics outdoors in Battle Creek to bandstand music because he recognized that music made exercise more fun.

If you’re ever on I-94 driving across Southern Michigan, definitely take half a day for Historic Adventist Village.  My tour made me want to read the Road to Wellville, by T.C. Boyle.  Maybe I should pick up a copy along with his new novel, The Women, based on the life and times of Frank Lloyd Wright?  (Has anyone out there read Wellville, or seen the movie?  What’s  your take?  It was one of those latter-day “brat pack” movies I missed, which is odd, because I love Bridget Fonda, Matthew Broderick, and John Cusak.)

8 thoughts on “The Road to Wellville

  1. I’ve read the book and seen the movie. I thought the book was among T.C. Boyle’s best — well written and pretty accurate (although because it’s satire, is over the top at times). The movie was not that good despite having a fine set of actors.


  2. Seems a lot of women back in the old days figured out that “room of one’s own” thing. At the Judith Sargent Murray house museum in Gloucester, they show a tiny little closet to which she would retreat to write.

    Yeah, the Wellville movie was not good, trivializing and sensationalizing the kookier aspects at the expense of any understanding of the purpose or context of the sanitarium. It also served as a showcase for Anthony Hopkins’ cartoon of Kellogg.


  3. Huh. In childhood, I ate through at least ten acre-feet (a ten acre bowl filled a foot deep) of Kelloggs products without learning *any* of this interesting history. Even today, Special K is the official cereal of the Indyanna household and all you get on the box are perky weight-watching tips. I imagine the name “Battle Creek” would add yet another layer of backstory to the modern day cardboard empire.


  4. p.s.

    Has anyone read Susan Grey’s _The Yankee West_, (UNC Press, 1996), set in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek vicinity, and about the cultural influence of migratory New Englanders on the landscape at the community level? I’m generally very skeptical of prevalent-to-even- hegemonic claims about Yankee cultural conquest from “Wyoming” (PA) to Willamette, but most cliches have at least some degree or kernel of truth in them. Maybe Historiann, who studies New England and has lived in the Old Northwest has a different take on this question.


  5. Another trivia fact. John H Kellogg invented breakfast cereal to serve to attendees at his health center as an alternative to eggs and bacon. His brother W K Kellogg wanted to mass market the idea. A big court fight. WK won. JH the brains behind inventions and cereal died of rather modest means, his brother, a multi millionare.


  6. Pingback: Mike Daisey and the Truth : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  7. Pingback: Mike Daisey and the Truth | Historiann

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