Henry Parsons Crowell founded Quaker Oats and was an extraordinary Christian businessman who funded many Christian initiatives, including the Moody Bible Institute, despite having to overcome a childhood deadly disease. A man hungry for the Word of God his entire life, on October 22, 1943, at the age of 82, he went to be with the Lord while riding the commuter train back to his house with a Bible in his hand. Henry Parsons Crowell left an indelible mark on society by bringing oatmeal to America’s breakfast table, provided new methods of marketing and merchandising that are still revolutionary by today’s standards and he advanced the Gospel with his economic and advisory to the Moody Bible Institute and the establishment of the Henry Parsons and Susan Coleman Crowell Trust.
His father was a successful shoe manufacturer who left the family a small fortune upon his tragic passing at age 36. Tuberculosis, the same disease that took his father’s life, almost took Henry’s life as well. Doctors recommended Henry’s only chance for survival would be to leave his home of Cleveland, OH and immerse himself in the fresh air of the Western United States. Therefore, much of his adolescent years were spent traveling through Colorado, Wyoming, California and Montana on horseback. Henry eventually ended up in Iowa where he purchased a farm.
Without a high school diploma or even the opportunity to have learned vital business lessons from his father, Henry had to rely on his own instincts and the advice of his heavenly Father in order to succeed. Shortly after purchasing his first farm in Iowa, a violent tornado ripped through the area and left many nearby farms in shambles. Miraculously however, his farm suffered no damage. Soon thereafter, he was offered far more than what he bought it for and through prayer, decided to sell and parlay the profits into putting an option on a much larger tract of land in South Dakota.
He didn’t have the money to buy the 14,000 acres so he returned to Cleveland and sought the advice of his uncle. Henry was then introduced to his uncle’s banker who became quite impressed in young Henry’s business acumen and agreed to provide the loan to buy the property. Then, his uncle encouraged Henry to use the land to breed horses rather than simply grow wheat like everyone else. Together, they rounded up 300 horses from across Ohio and then Henry did something quite ingenious in order to market his new venture. He had the train box cars that were shipping the horses to his new land in South Dakota covered with billboard signs advertising his horses. It became the talk of farmers across three states. It even impressed a businessman from Minneapolis who bought the entire operation in short order.
By 1880, at the age of 25, Henry Parsons Crowell was pronounced cured of TB by his doctor and was now 2 for 2 on business ventures. While seeking the Lord’s counsel as to his next move, his uncle suggested he look into purchasing the Quaker Mill. The two previous owners had lost their shirts with that oat mill but his uncle urged Henry to research the matter even still. At the time, oats were considered horse food, but Henry saw where rolled oats from the Quaker mill could become a part of America’s breakfast table. In 1881, Henry bought Quaker Mill and immediately hired an operations person to handle the mill while Henry focused his time and energy on creating a market for his rolled oats.
A year later, he married his first love Lillie and shortly thereafter, they were blessed with a baby girl, Annie. Then, just as life seemed to be going so well, tragedy struck. In January 1885, only two and a half years into their marriage, Lillie suddenly got sick and died. Henry’s world collapsed. The love of his life was gone. Annie’s grandmother, Lillie’s mother, offered to care for 19 month old Annie and after much prayer, Henry agreed and then headed back to Quaker Mill to plunge himself fully into the business.
Despite much hard work, Quaker Mill was struggling. Henry brought his business problems to the Lord, something that was very unusual at that time in Christianity. An idea came to him that was to change breakfast tables forever. Up to that point, oats were presented for sale in big barrels or boxes, set on the floors of grocery or general stores, attracting worms, insects and vermin. He envisioned his oats on grocery store shelves in individual, sanitary, cardboard containers. The idea worked. Demand soared.
Henry wanted to enlist the cooperation of other millers to get this concept out to the masses. Competition amongst millers was fierce so Henry personally went to 20 other millers in hopes of forming a voluntary association of companies with a single name, pricing and marketing plan. Henry was so committed to the idea, he put up his company’s assets into this separately chartered company. It worked and the new organization was called the Oatmeal Millers Association, later renamed American Cereal Company.
In 1888, Henry met, fell in love with and married Susan Coleman. She had a sharp business mind as well and introduced Henry to Frank Drury and his lamp stove invention. Henry and Frank formed the Cleveland Foundry Company and began producing and selling Perfection Stoves. By the end of the century, the success from this company alone made them both millionaires.
During the depression of 1893, Henry Crowell saw American Cereal’s Quaker Oats as affordable, nutritious alternative for housewives to feed their families over beef. While 15,000 other businesses went bankrupt and many others were cutting back, Henry made bold investments in advertising, putting billboards on train box cars promoting, “Quaker Oats, the World’s Breakfast,” and adding display ads to newspapers and magazines. He researched and wrote the ads himself. He pioneered the use of celebrity endorsements. He invented contests with prizes for mailing in the top of the box. Prior to this, businesses advertised and hired sales people in order to sell the grocers on why they should stock the item. Henry by-passed this and went straight to the consumer so that they would request the item to be stocked by the grocer. He turned housewives across America into his sales people.
In 1899, when stock speculators seized control of American Cereal Company with the intent to form a Trust to block competition and pricing, Henry foresaw the future governmental troubles that would overtake the company and proposed to save those attorney and legal fees to invest in building a better company. His keen insights prevailed upon voting of the Board and by 1908, the Quaker trademark was a known by more people in more countries than any other brand on any kind of good in the entire world.
Henry and Susan were well known around Chicago due to their financial prosperity, but they were also known for their religious convictions, sharing the Gospel as the opportunity presented itself. Henry shared his faith within his business circles and Susan within her social societies. Many corporate giants came to Christ as a result of their association with Crowell. And the Henry Parsons and Susan Coleman Crowell Trust donated to more than 100 Christian organizations, including the Moody Bible Institute.
The more money Henry gave to Christian causes, the more he prospered. In 1901, Standard Oil was accumulating large ponds of coal oil with no use for it. John D Rockefeller was introduced to the Perfection Stove and immediately, John had 3,000 new sales people selling Henry and Frank’s lamp stoves, bringing them astronomical sales. Much of the fortune Henry created from this business. went to fund church and missionary ventures
Henry Parsons Crowell was a mighty man of God and an extraordinary entrepreneur. To learn more about his life, read the book The Cereal Tycoon by Joe Musser.