The Klondike Big Inch
DAWSON, Yukon Territory – Once upon a time there was an advertising executive in a City called Chicago. His job was to make children yell, “Mommy, I want Quaker Puffed Rice!”
For many years, this man told the children his cereal was shot from guns. This helped his sales.
But other cereals had talking tigers and gave away prizes in every box. This hurt his sales. What could the poor businessman do?
He needed a new idea. Or else he would need a new job. He had to think of something catchy and simple and it had to do with the cereal’s radio show about a Mountie in the Yukon. Suddenly, the man knew!
In each box of Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat he would give away a square inch of land in the romantic Yukon right here in Dawson where Sergeant Preston and his trusty dog King had their adventures every week.
And so began the Great Klondike Big Inch land Caper, one of the most successful sales promotions in North American business history.
For long after all the rocket rings and plastic submarines arid other cereal-box prizes were lost, millions of those official-looking, legal-sounding, gold-embossed deeds to a square inch of Yukon land remained in drawers, albums, safe deposit boxes, scrapbooks, vaults and, more importantly, in the memory of a generation of men and women not so young anymore.
And given the ravages of the years and the current uncertain economic times, a steadily mounting stream of these former children, their attorneys, their widows and their executors are writing to inquire after their “property,” which they assume has increased in value over all these years.
But, alas, the replies carry sad news. Not only do these people not own the land now. They never did, because each individual deed was never formally registered. The Klondike Big Inch Land Co., an Illinois subsidiary established to handle the cereal’s land affairs, has gone out of business. And anyway, the Canadian government repossessed all the land back in 1965 for nonpayment of $37.20 in property taxes.
But still, the cereal saga won’t die. Thousands of “owners” have written to officials in the Yukon. A vast, sparsely populated area that is one of two of Canada’s northern territories. “Please tell them to stop.” pleaded Cheryl Lefevre. a land-office clerk who stores the Yukon’s files on the matter, files now more than 18 inches thick.
The land of course, is still here – Group 2 in lot 243. It is a 19.11-acre plot on the west bank of the Yukon River about three miles upstream from town where, according to crumbling old records in Dawson’s land office, Malcolm McLaren first homesteaded back in 1911.
It is a long way from a suburban Chicago home in 1954, the night before Bruce Baker, the adman was to make his promotional presentation. Before he died three years ago, Baker recounted to a friend his side of the Klondike epic.
Baker was nearly panicked for a new idea, any new idea. When the inspiration came to him, he could almost see the ads: “You’ll actually own one square inch of Yukon land in the famous gold country!”
Quaker Oats hated the idea.
Too many potential legal problems, the lawyers said. It would cost far too much to register every deed to every little cereal-eater out there. Baker suggested, then, that they not register the deeds.
And he found a Yukon lawyer who thought it was legal. Baker flew to the Yukon and, after a harrowing midwinter boat journey, saw the land and bought it for $1,000.
Twenty-one million numbered deeds were printed up. And on Jan. 27, 1955, the promotion was begun on the Sergeant Preston radio show.
The response was far beyond Baker’s wildest hopes. Quaker’s puffed cereal plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, could hardly stuff the deeds in fast enough. Within weeks, every box was sold.
As time went on, Quaker redirected its cereal sales. “We do zero promotion now,” said Kathy Rand, Quaker’s public relations manager. “because we’re not positioned for kids. The cereals are no sugar, salt or additives, so they’re aimed at babies or the diet conscious.”
In 1965, the 19.11 acres were seized. In 1966, the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. was dissolved. There were always some “owners” writing for information. But it built to a flood more recently, involving Canadian consuls general in the United States, the Yukon and even the prime minister’s office in Ottawa.
Steven Spoerl wrote Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to announce he was declaring the formal independence of his four square inches.
Each writer gets a polite reply that refers to Quaker’s “promotional gimmick” and suggests they write Chicago.
“The deeds were not meant to have any intrinsic value,” Quaker now says, “but rather to give the consumer the romantic appeal of being the owner of a square inch of land in the Yukon.”
Ironically, there are reports that-Baker’s late-night brainstorm, those 7-by-5-inch deeds that were 35 times larger than the piece of land they represented, are bringing upwards of $40 in some antique shops.
Here are some of the letters written:
Well, probably the best-documented article concerning the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. Inc. was written in 1975 by Jack McIver for CANADIAN MAGAZINE. It’s a fascinating story and bears repeating, so here it is, just keep in mind it was written 25 years ago and some of the people mentioned in the article may now be in different circumstances.
By Jack McIver
This is a story about a bathroom, a Mountie, several hundred tons of breakfast cereal, a Canadian senator, a television game show, a murder, 21 million square inches of Yukon Territory land, a severe case of frostbite, and an advertising campaign that should have died 20 years ago – but didn’t
First, the bathroom. We lake you back to the fall of 1954, to Lake Forest. Ill. and the home of Chicago advertising executive Bruce Baker. It is 3 o’clock in the morning. Baker, creative director for the ad agency of Wherry, Baker & Tilden, can’t sleep. He is a desperate man. He is, as he recalls the moment today, “sitting in the can, smoking three cigarettes at once – well, at least two” (He is desperate, but not suicidal.)
One of Wherry, Baker & Tilden’s clients is the Quaker Oats Co., the Chicago-based firm that fires Puffed Wheat, Puffed Rice and a variety of other ready-to-eat cereals from cannons. But the breakfast cereal market is a highly competitive one, and the cannon gimmick is wearing a bit thin. Some cereal manufacturers have hired tigers and bears to promote their products; others are luring customers by stuffing their boxes with premiums – whistles and marbles, buttons and soldiers, plastic airplanes and baking-soda-powered submarines. Quaker Oats has tried toy cannons that actually shoot cereal across the kitchen, and rings with prisms that can actually burn holes in Mom’s tablecloth, but they haven’t gone over too well – Mom, after all, is the one who buys the stuff, and the kids weren’t yelling loud enough for it.
“Besides,” Baker remembers, “these plastic whistles and things were worth about 5 cents each. I had to come up with something that didn’t cost too much.”
Back to the bathroom: Baker also wants a promotional scheme that will tie in with Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, the radio (and later, TV) show sponsored by Quaker Oats. It stars Richard Simmons as a handsome, burly, moustached Mountie who always gets his man and never gets his scarlet tunic mussed. Sgt. Preston has a team of huskies led by Yukon King (“On King! On, you huskies!”) The show, which originates on WXYZ radio in Detroit, is broadcast by stations across the U.S., and Canada, and the kids love it. Now, thinks Baker, if only they’d love Quaker Oats products. Or at least buy them…
Few such instances are recorded, but it’s likely that many of mankind’s greatest discoveries originated in a bathroom. Remember Archimedes? Baker can’t recall if he yelled “Eureka!” when the idea finally came to him, but be knew it was a good one. A great one. “I took the 5 am train in to Chicago and my art director and I went to work on it right away. By 11 o’clock, I was at Quaker Oats with the presentation.”
Baker’s plan was this: Quaker Oats would buy a parcel of land in Sgt Preston’s Yukon Territory, subdivide it into square-inch lots, and give the lots away to buyers of Puffed Wheat Puffed Rice and other Quaker cereals. (Baker was partly inspired by a story that had run in Life magazine a few years earlier: a Texan had become a millionaire by selling – for $10 each – square-inch pieces of land in his state to expatriate Texans.) It would be a totally legal transfer of land: every kid who dug to the bottom of his or her cereal box would find a deed to one square inch of Yukon property. Lawyers would draw up the deeds. They’d be “gold-embossed,” and have loads of legalistic fine print on them. And a corporate seal. And a place to put the new owner’s name.
The kids would actually own a genuine piece of Canadian Gold Rush land. Sgt. Preston land. Yukon King land. They’d go crazy trying to get them! Quaker Oats would conquer the cereal market! The world!
Quaker Oats hated the idea.
It was impossible, the company’s lawyers told Baker. Registering the deeds to millions of tiny tots, even if it could be done, would cost the company a fortune.
Then we won’t register them, said Baker.
Forget it, said the lawyers.
But he wouldn’t forget it. In early October, 1954, Baker, his brother John (a lawyer, now retired), and a Quaker Oats advertising executive chartered a plane and flew to the Yukon, looking for land.
In Whitehorse, the three introduced themselves to George Van Roggen, a young lawyer who is today a Canadian senator. He had a law practice in Whitehorse with Erik Nielsen (now MP for the Yukon), and although he left the Yukon in 1957 and now practices in Vancouver, Van Roggen remembers the incident well – and fondly: “As a staid lawyer, I found the antics of these ad guys from Chicago most entertaining, certainly more so than drawing up wills. In the U.S., there’d be very little legal difficulty in dividing land into one-inch parcels, but they wanted to
know if, in Canada, you could give away deeds that couldn’t be individually registered. We gave the opinion that you could, that they’d be legal.”
Van Roggen also found Baker his land, 19 acres of government property seven miles up the Yukon River from Dawson. By then, Baker had convinced Quaker Oats that the promotion would work, and the company bought the land for $1000. Van Roggen drove the men from Whitehorse to Dawson (“He was absolutely intrigued by the whole thing,” says Baker), and in the early, frigid hours of Thursday, Oct. 7, the three set out in an open skiff to inspect their property. “It was,” Baker says, “the most exciting day of my life.” He has a wooden leg today to prove it.
Their guide for the trip up river was Constable Paul LeCocq, a real, live Mountie from Montreal who was stationed in Dawson. LeCocq, Baker remembers, actually had a team of huskies led by a lead dog named Yukon King, and he received all the fan mail addressed to Sgt Preston of the Yukon.
John Baker, the lawyer, kept a diary of their trip to the Yukon. Here’s an excerpt from that fateful Thursday:
“We arose at about 5:15 am., and after getting dressed found it was still dark. It was several degrees below zero. Finally Paul appeared in his pickup truck. We bundled up