The Sutler Secret of Erhard Steinbacher

By: Robert C. Reszler

Oatmeal is a staple on tables across America, and Quaker Oats is one of the most recognized brand names in the world. These, however, are relatively recent phenomena. One hundred forty-five years ago, most Americans were unfamiliar with oatmeal as a foodstuff, yet in a matter of only fifteen years it had become integral part of the American cuisine. How this dish went from relatively unknown to standard fare in just a few years is a legitimate, yet perplexing question. Historians have traced the oatmeal industry (and its most famous brand) to Akron, Ohio in the 1860s, but the particulars of its origins and phenomenal growth have never been explained satisfactorily. Local Akron, Ohio, legend states that Ferdinand Schumacher, “Oatmeal King” and founder of Quaker Oats, started his business empire with the help of close friend Erhard Steinbacher. Steinbacher had supposedly managed to get Schumacher a one hundred barrel trial order to supply Union Army troops during the Civil War.[1. Karl M. Grismer, Akron & Summit County (Akron: Summit County Historical Society, 1952), In this historiography, Grismer provided a standard, traditional account of Ferdinand Schumacher’s start in the oatmeal business which has been widely accepted in Akron, Ohio lore. “(Ferdinand Schumacher) was one of the first persons in Akron to prosper because of the Civil War…. in 1861 the thrifty Schumacher got a tremendous break. He got it through one of his best friends, a fellow German who had also fled from oppression in his fatherland. He was Erhard Steinbacher, grocer and druggist. Becoming an ardent Republican, Steinbacher had many influential friends in the party and when the Civil War started was authorized by the quartermaster general to purchase supplies for the army in this territory. He placed huge orders for flour with local mills and before the war was many months old, all were running at peak capacity. In making his purchases, Steinbacher did not forget his good friend Schumacher. He insisted that the army buy oatmeal to serve the soldiers for breakfast – it was much tastier and more nourishing than any other cereal which could be obtained, infinitely better than cornmeal. That stuff, he declared, might be good enough for Southern rebels but certainly not good enough for fighting Yankees. After weeks of arguing, Steinbacher’s German persistence won and the quartermaster’s office reluctantly agreed to take a sample order of a hundred barrels. Just a hundred barrels – from an army standpoint, hardly an order worth mentioning. But for Schumacher, the order was stupendous…. After the oatmeal was shipped, Schumacher anxiously waited to learn how it would be received in the army camps. He knew that few soldiers had ever eaten the cereal and was afraid many would refuse to taste it, just because it was something new. But his fears were unjustified. The soldiers liked it. Army orders for oatmeal began pouring in.”] Until recently, this legend has been accepted as fact, yet research into official government and army records provides no evidence that the Army or the Sanitary Commission ever directly supplied Schumacher’s products to the troops. If Schumacher started the American oatmeal industry through supplying great quantities to Union troops, it had to have been via unofficial channels. The issue of Schumacher’s success is not in dispute: by the mid-1860s he was running several mills and was the wealthiest man in Akron. The issue of where and how the oatmeal was sold, however, is not as clear. This paper will illustrate that the secret to the success of the oatmeal industry in America may lie in a much deeper role for Erhard Steinbacher as a Civil War “sutler,” providing hungry Union soldiers with an introduction and pipeline to Schumacher’s new dish, and thus whetting their appetite for more when the war was over. Continue reading The Sutler Secret of Erhard Steinbacher