The south end of town surrounding the rail yards was a hotbed of manufacturing in the late 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. By the 1940s, that activity had started to taper off. One exception was the area on South Main Street near today’s RailsWest Museum, which was experiencing a rebirth of manufacturing about that time.
Richard Savage understood wheat cereal. He founded the first of his three companies that brought wheat to the breakfast table in 1914 in Billings, Montana. “Cream of the West” cereal became a regional favorite. He sold his interest in the company and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where he created Dwarfies cereal. He moved Dwarfies to 1216 S. Main St. in Council Bluffs in 1926, sold the company a short time later, and started Georgie Porgie cereal a block away at 1102 S. Main St.
Though the two wheat-based cereals tasted much alike the marketing was different; Dwarfies was one of the first cereals promoted directly to children and featured cartoon characters in advertising and on the box. Georgie Porgie identified with a real toddler — Mr. Savage’s 4-year-old son, Alfred. Alfred’s image, attired in a cowboy suit, became the company’s trademark. Alfred outgrew the role and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1943. He went on to become a highly decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force. It was the real life Georgie Porgie that piloted the reconnaissance plane over Hiroshima two hours after the dropping of the atomic bomb. He also commanded many missions during the Vietnam conflict.
Recognizing that dry breakfast cereal was starting to cut significantly into the market share of hot cereal, Savage sold the business, which moved to South 21st Street, adjacent to the railroad tracks along First Avenue. Other foods were added to the product line. Carlton Woodward, Jr. took over and emphasized Georgie Porgie popcorn, remaining in business until 1973.
Dwarfie’s South Main Street location was severely damaged by fire in 1947. They relocated to a modern plant at 40th and West Broadway. The new plant and cereal division was bought out by the Quaker Baking Company in the early 1950s. Quaker moved to Omaha and the factory was purchased by Frito-Lay in 1957.
In 1941, Howard Manufacturing took over a building at 1401 S. Main St. that was big enough to bring all of their operations under one roof. The large two story building had previously been a four story shirt factory; the top two floors were removed following a fire in 1912.
Founder Ted Keller was born in Kansas and worked as a traveling salesman, peddling gear to convert silent movie houses into sound picture theaters. A business opportunity to make radio tubes brought him to Council Bluffs, where he and wife Dorothy set up production the basement of their home on Morningside Avenue.
They named their company Howard Manufacturing, Howard being Ted’s mother’s maiden name. The business grew and expanded into progressively larger buildings around town. Several companies, including World Radio Laboratories and Petersen Radio of Council Bluffs, were producing radio crystals for use in World War II; Howard Manufacturing found a niche making plug-in holders to contain the crystals. Howard became the largest crystal holder manufacturer in the nation, with around 700 employees.
After the war, the company changed its focus to the manufacture of shrink wrap and other plastic objects. Initially, plastic remained in short supply so company chemists devised a way to mix paper pulp with phenol resin to produce a hard fiber that could be used to produce a variety of products, including high quality wheels.
The company produced wheels that were in turn sold to manufacturers who used them on roller skates, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and baby carriages. The company also made toys, including the popular Jy-ro and and the Alphaplastic Plug-In Letter Set, an educational toy to promote learning to spell.
In 1956, Howard Manufacturing acquired the old Dwarfies building two blocks north for expansion.
The Kellers retained ownership until 1956 when Howard Plastics was merged into a wholly owned subsidiary of W.R. Grace and Company of New York City. Keller remained as president and manager until his resignation in 1958, citing health reasons. His wife resigned her position as secretary-treasurer at the same time, but both remained on the board of directors. Thomas Lyall of Cambridge, Massachusetts became the new president.
The Council Bluffs plant was closed shortly after and the building sold to Samuel Bittner in 1961 for use as a storage facility and auction house. A fire gutted the building in 1962; it was restored and served as home to Bluffs Moving and Storage, Anderson Brothers Feed, Bluffs Machine Shop, MFT Construction, and Souls in Stone Architectural Moldings.
The building was also home of the Council Bluffs Business Association for many years. It was razed a few years ago and is a green space today.
The Dwarfies building at 1216 S. Main St. served as home to Ford Propane and Gas as well as Sidles Distributing plus a controversial couple of years in the mid-1970s as the Wherehouse Lounge, described as a “trouble spot” by a police historian of the era.
The building later housed Prestige Furniture for many years and today is looking better than ever as home of Habitat for Humanity following a $4 million renovation.
— The Historical and Preservation Society can be reached at information@TheHistoricalSociety.org.