Monday, January 22, 2024

Flour Power (part 2)

Early regional and national flour brands were frequent radio sponsors in the golden era. In a previous post, back in 2007 I wrote up [LINK] the radio contributions of nine brands Light Crust Flour, Hillbilly Flour, Bright Star Flour, Martha White Flour, King Biscuit Flour, Purity Flour, Bewley Flour, Red Star Flour and Mothers Best Flour. Of those only Martha White and Purity Flour still exist. I have found nine more flour brands with interesting roles in radio.

As early as the 1950s the FTC got involved in flour-industry anti-trust issues under the Clayton act. More here. The FTC ordered that Pillsbury divest itself of two competitors it acquired: Ballard & Ballard based in Louisville and Duff's Baking Mix, a division of American Home Foods, based in Hamilton OH. But the march of consolidation barely slowed down. In 2014 Horizon Milling and ConAgra Milling were permitted to merge under the new brand Ardent Mills which controls about 17% of the U.S. flour milling industry. That march of consolidation has further fueled flour's departure from radio advertising making relics of these old programs.

Sperry Flour - General Mills owns the Sperry brand these days. It's rarely used though. The original Sperry Flour Company was from Stockton, CA, founded around 1850. It operated 30-some flour mills around Spokane by 1920. Some of those mills still stand today. Their main product was a fine ground white flour they called "drifting snow flour." In 1929 General Mills bought them out. The mills kept running in Spokane until about 1965.  The buildings themselves were sold to VWR United  in 1966, then ADM in 1981. More here.

In the 1930s Sperry flour began sponsoring some radio programing. The window was short, they'd already been bought by GM. But in 1934 I found a listing for Helen Gladstone of the Sperry Company featured on KMTR. Their sponsorship of Eb and Zeb started as early as 1932, and appear on the same schedule as Helen but on KFOX.  Little is written about Zeb or Eb except that the scripts were written by John Hasty. It's an old fashioned rural comedy mocking the intelligence of country people. Every source I've found listed Shell as the sponsor but the above promo shot has a Sperry flour box on the front and the logo on the back.

The cast get a full listing on the cards which even OTR guides lack: Mrs. (Mother) Pearce, Al Pearce, Cal Pearce, Morey Amsterdam, Mabel Todd, THE THREE CHEERS, E.J. Derry, Jr. Travis B. Hale, Phil Hanna, Yogi Yorgesson, Lord Bilgewater, Hazel Warner, Tony Romano, Bob Lee, Earl Hatch, Jackie Archer, Budd Hatch, Walter Kelsey, Carlyle Bennett, the Eb and Zeb, played by Al Pearce and W.A. Wright respectively. Pearce has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, having spent time at KFRC starting in 1928. Much of that cast had also been on the NBC Blue Network on the Pearce's The Happy Go Lucky Hour. Mr. Wright is the hardest of them to find, his wife appears in the both the August and February 1929 issues of Radio Life living at 1619 East 87th St. Los Angeles, CA. Then in 1941 W.A. Wright appears as the Vice President of the Fuller, Smith & Ross Advertising Agency. I guess he went straight.

Pillsbury Flour - This company has been around since at least 1869 or so says the official version. It was founded by Charles Alfred Pillsbury and his uncle John S. Pillsbury.  But earlier histories describe Charles becoming the third partner in an existing flour milling company in St. Anthony Falls, MN. So it's more likely that it was rebranded at some point after 1869.

Three different sponsored programs pop up the first is Todays' Children, a well known soap operate sponsored by Pillsbury. That sheet music above is from 1936, and the back even bears the recipe for the pictured wedding cake. The program ran from 1933 to 1938, then got a reboot in 1943 and ran to 1950 with a new cast. Today's Children started as one of three Phillips-created serials which made up the General Mills Hour, with characters and plotslines crossing between them. The three original serials were: Todays Children, The Guiding Light, and Woman In White. Pillsbury sponsored all three of course.

Pillsbury then sponsored Grand Central station, a dramatic program that ran from 1937 to 1954. It culminated in a Grand Central Station Radio Broadcasts LP, with Pillsbury on the back. The announcers were George Baxter, Ken Roberts and Tom Shirley. The programs were narrated by Jack Arthur, Stuart Metz and Alexander Scourby. Roberts started out on WMCA, and you might know him from The Shawow when it ran on Mutual. Scourby pops up on the 1936 CBS radio program Columbia Workshop, which connects the two via Orson Welles.

A third program, the "National Radio Homemakers Club" was heard over CBS starting in 1929. Her two biggest sponsors were Pillsbury flour, and Royal gelatin. The show ran until 1932. I wrote about her career here.

Gold Medal Flour - In 1931 the Washburn Crosby Co. of Minneapolis, MN ran its own radio station which I'll get to in a moment. Washburn was founded by Cadwallader C. Washburn in 1866. The biography doesnt say it but I suspect that he's Welsh with him sharing a first name with Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon was king of Gwynedd.  That's quite a handle. In 1880 his flour took three top prizes and he started using the "Gold Medal" brand as a superlative.

Gold Medal notably sponsored Beams of Heaven with Paul E. Brown on 860 WERD-AM. If you forgot, that is the first black-owned radio station in America. More here. The program was named after Charles Tindley’s song “Beams of Heaven (as I go),” published in 1906.The show's host was Paul E. X. Brown.

Paul E. X. Brown first became an announcer for WERD in 1949. He had previously been the editor of the Prince Hall Masonic Review and a DJ and sports announcer at WEAS. His tenure at WERD was short, as he took a position as chief announcer at WEDR in 1950. He left radio in 1962 for a marking job at coca-cola. He died in 2007 at the age of 96. For more on Mr. Brown You can read the book Black Radio ... Winner Takes All: America's 1St Black DJs by Marsha Washington George.

In 1956 the FCC considered an incident of competing broadcast applications. [SOURCE] It involved  WERD, WDMG and WAMI. But as a bonus they delved deep into the programming content of WERG on page 716. I am going to gratuitously quote an entire paragraph below. From it we learn that Beams of Heaven ran for 30 minutes 5 days a week playing gospel records.

"Musical programs proposed by WERD include the "Graham Jackson Show," 9:30 to 10:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday, which will feature semi-classical and popular music played by the Staff Organist, together with guest appearances of musicians and vocalists from educational institutions and the community-at-large. "Sweet Chariot," a recorded program of religious music which has been requested by the listening audience. "Beams of Heaven," 11:30 to 12:00 noon Monday through Friday, will feature one-half hour of the best recorded gospel music. "Gospel Train," 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, will present a full hour of recorded songs of faith and worship, and will feature spirituals, gospel and sacred songs. "Old Ship of Zion," 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, will present one-half hour of the best recorded religious music."

Gold Medal also sponsored the Betty Crocker Radio Cooking School. I've made a number of references to Betty Crocker over the years but strangely seem not to have dug into it much except in cases of disambiguation. Gold Medal then operating as Washburn-Crosby flour, bought the failing and ironically named station WLAG in 1924, and renamed it WCCO. The station bore the name "gold medal flour station" on it's letterhead for at least a decade. The radio cooking school had recipe mailings, letters, mail-in tests and you can still find this ephemera today..


Victor Flour -  Crete Mills manufactured Victor Flour. The sponsored Uncle John and Aunt Minerva on 740 KMMJ-AM in Clay Center, Nebraska. A 1929 KMMJ guide describes Uncle John's temper and frequent insults directed at Minerva. [SOURCE]

Strangely their character names pop up in many places . There's an Uncle John and an Aunt Minerva in the 1943 comedy film So's Your Uncle. But Don Woods and Billie Burkes bear no resemblance to the above persons. There was also a pair of gospel composers “Uncle Wallace” and “Aunt Minerva” who may have had their names misappropriated. Details on their career are scarce, a few newspaper references in the Barnard Bee, and the Variety Radio Directory of 1938 both list them at KMMJ. So that's at least a decade on air.

Occident Flour - It looks like Arden Mills still makes unbleached Occident flour in commercial quantities at least. There are 50 lbs bags on some supply websites. But it seems to have also become shorthand for the type of flour used to make pan bread. (the square slices you use to make a sandwich) The image here is from 1939, of the WCCO Radio house band. Old advertisements seem to indicate that Occident Flour was made by the Russell-Miller Milling Company as early as 1911.

The Russell-Miller Milling company was founded in 1882, and operated in Valley City, ND. It relocated to Minneapolis in 1906, growing to become the 4th largest milling company in the U.S. by 1957. I was expecting to find that they were later acquired by Gold Medal but no, in 2012, Miller Milling became a part of the Nisshin Seifun Group of Japan.

How then did they end up sponsoring a program on WCCO, owned by the competition? My best guess is that Gold Medal was happy not to foot the full bill for WCCO's operations so the sales door was open even to competitors. A 1952 State Fair edition of the WCCO news parade Bob DeHaven of "Breakfast with Bob" plugs Occident Cake Mix but I can find no references between the 1939 post card and the 1952 morning program.


Gold Chain - The book The First Generation of Country Music Stars claims that Ernest Tubbs got his start with a flour sponsor.  He recorded a 78 in 1940 with Decco that sold enough to get him a regular slot on KGKO. Afterward Universal Mills sought him out and on air at least he became known as the Golden Chain Troubadour for Golden Chain Flour. He did at least one tour under the flour regime and then left to appear in some Charles Starlet western films in Hollywood.

But there's more of course. They also sponsored the radio show Hackberrry Hotel  which I've also explored in the past. [LINK] Hack Berry & Willie Botts were the main characters  program on KGKO and KXYZ in 1944. A promotional postcard reveals Willie Botts as portrayed by Ben McClesky in blackface. The show continued until 1951 probably making it one of the later programs to do so


Hecker's Flour - sponsored the Bobby Benson radio series in the 1930s. It was broadcast on CBS October 1932 to December of 1936. Then it was carried on the Mutual network June 1949 through June 1955.  I've seen it listed under multiple names: Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, Bobby Benson & the H-Bar-O Rangers, and alternately as Bobby Benson and the H-O Rangers. You can see which ones were sponsored by Heckers. The original run of the series was just a 15-minute program, but the shows after 1949 were 30 minutes long.Four different actors played Bobby Benson in the series; Richard Wanamaker, William Halop, Ivan Cury and Clyde Campbell. Of the group, only Halop had much of an acting career. You might recognize him as Bert Munson from the Archie Bunker TV series.

The programs two main sponsors were Hecker H-O Company, and Kraft Foods. Heckers even sponsored Bobby Benson comic books. Don't recognize the Hecker brand? It is a sister brand of Ceresota. This brand was made by Northwest Consolidated Milling Company, which was  acquired by the Standard Milling Company in April 1902, they later changed their name to Uhlmann Company which they still use today

Aunt Jemima's Pancake Flour - I've actually written about this at length before, HERE.  But here I want to talk about the company. You will see in that post a flour sack with the name "The Quaker Oats Company", but other older ads refer to them as Aunt Jemima Mills Co. In 1888, Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood bought a small flour mill in St. Joseph MO. They operated that company as the Pearl Milling Company initially. In 1889 Rutt copied/stole the Aunt Jemima name and image from a local Vaudeville Act and began using it in advertisements. The Quaker Oats Company purchased the Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1926, and formally registered the Aunt Jemima trademark in April 1937 but the brand had been already in use for over 50 years!  Their most notable radio contribution was the The Aunt Jemima program on the NBC Red Network back in 1929, that's clearly before the brand change.

But this is where the official history might be lacking. The current owners claim that the Aunt Jemima Mills Co. name was in use 1914–1926. But you can easily find examples as late as 1929, even in legal documents. The official brand change in appears in the 1937 Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office as follows "
120,160 PANCAKE, BUCKWHEAT, CORN AND WHEAT FLOURS. Registered January 15th 1918, Aunt Jemima Mills, Company, St,. Joseph MO, Renewed January 15th 1938, to The Quaker Oats Company, Chicago, IL, A corporation of New Jersey, assignee.

Freedom Mills Flour - I never thought I'd find a contemporary example but here it is. Freedom Mills is a local and independent flour mill in Skandia, MI. They advertise pretty regularly with WKQS Sunny 101.9, an Adult Contemporary station based in Marquette. I appreciate the historical continuity of their recipes appearing on the radio station website.  Liberty farms started milling in 2017 and are now available in 50 stores. You can read more here. and here.

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