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Our view: ND's greatest invention needs more attention

Herald editorial board

Boil some water, slowly pour in the product and stir consistently. A few minutes later, the creamy substance takes shape. A bit of sugar and a splash of milk, and it's ready to eat.

Preparing Cream of Wheat is that simple, and it's a basic process that's been repeated incalculable times since the product's debut 125 years ago as America's first hot breakfast cereal.

Recently, a company called Family Handiman released a list of each state's most famous invention, handing that designation in North Dakota to Cream of Wheat. The website noted how it started when a former newspaper editor, Emery Mapes, and a farm manager, George Bull, bought a mill in Grand Forks.

"Desperate to stay afloat during the Panic of 1893, operation supervisor Tom Amidon had a novel idea: cook the whitest part of the wheat as hot cereal," the website explained. "The company's New York brokers flipped for the product, and the company shifted its focus to making Cream of Wheat."

By 1897, the popular company outgrew its Grand Forks location and moved to Minneapolis.

These days, physical evidence of the story is sparse, and we feel that diminishes Grand Forks' role with the origins of Cream of Wheat. A small display at the Myra Museum pays modest tribute to the story, and that's good. But Grand Forks should work to better explain the history and lay stronger claim to North Dakota's greatest invention.

Use Spam as an example. The pork product that is mocked but still popular worldwide is produced in Austin, Minn. In 1991, the Spam Museum was built, including a theater, displays, activities and a gift shop.

Granted, any effort at highlighting Grand Forks' relationship to Cream of Wheat would be on a much smaller scale. After all, Cream of Wheat no longer is produced here. But more signage, artwork or a simple commemorative plaque where people congregate seems in order.

Now would be a good time, too, since 2018 marks the 125th year of Cream of Wheat. In 1993, former UND Center for Innovation CEO Bruce Gjovig worked to bring a 100th anniversary celebration, attended by more than 6,000, to the UND campus. It included a community breakfast and a Cream of Wheat-related art display at the North Dakota Museum of Art. It drew national media attention.

The Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau has reached out to Cream of Wheat in hopes of organizing some sort of commemorative 125th anniversary event, but has not heard back from the company. That's disappointing, because Grand Forks seems interested in holding on to its history with the company.

Grand Forks is an innovative community, but ag is still king. The city is home to the nation's only state-owned mill, and the region is supported by massive sugar and potato operations. Red River Biorefinery soon will break ground on a facility that will convert waste from beet and potato facilities into ethanol. Someday, Grand Forks hopes to build a $2.5 billion fertilizer plant.

Yet Cream of Wheat — the product that first brought national attention to our region's ag potential — still is considered North Dakota's greatest invention. The connection between the company and city should be strengthened.