What: Dr. J.H. Kellogg Discovery Center
Where: Battle Creek, Mich. (between Detroit and Chicago, about a three-hour drive from each)
Why: To explore the little-known story of John Harvey Kellogg, founder of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, one of the nation's earliest health resorts and a visionary advocate of good nutrition, vigorous exercise, scientific hygiene and other aspects of healthy living.
Background: This Kellogg, though co-inventor of flaked grain cereal, is not the Kellogg whose name is on the cereal box today. That would be J.H.'s brother Will, who won the rights to that business after a long, expensive and bitter battle with his brother. Though a charismatic leader and public health luminary, J.H. was by many accounts a vain, self-centered control maniac who alienated even his loyal sponsors and followers.
The tour: Housed in a converted bank branch and operated by an arm of the Seventh Day Adventist Church (which also calls Battle Creek home), the one-room Discovery Center tells the story of the San, as it was known, launched by the Adventists and transformed by Kellogg into one of the most renowned and influential health facilities of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The center features an exhibit about Ellen White, an early Adventist who enumerated the principles of healthy living (received in one of her many "visions" from God), which were later embraced, propagated and enlarged upon by Kellogg. There's a fascinating area devoted to the state of public health knowledge 150 years ago: A man who dared eat three tomatoes was thought by the fruit- and vegetable-phobic public to be committing suicide. Children got sick and sometimes died by hanging onto their mothers' heavy skirts, which were dragged along streets filthy with horse manure, tobacco spit and other germy trash.
Elsewhere around the room there are historic photos of the San and a wall of fame featuring photos of Gilded Age notables who came to take Kellogg's cure: Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, J.C. Penney, President William Howard Taft, Thomas Edison and C.W. Post (who would later make a fortune copying Kellogg's products). Another picture shows men in the dead of winter exercising on the San's expansive porch, wearing only what appear to be diapers.
But the highlight is a display of healing hardware demonstrating Victorian mechanical ingenuity. There are two "light baths," one looking like a primitive MRI tube but in a handsome wooden cabinet, the other a seat surrounded by hinged sidewalls lined with fat bulbs. (The doctor deduced that light therapy would enliven patients in the sunless Michigan winter, and that an "artificial fever" of 105 degrees would kill germs, release toxins and promote the formation of white blood cells. He also experimented with less successful treatments involving the use of electricity and--eek!--radium gas.) Nearby, a stylish colonic irrigator stands ready for action. There's a delightful Percussion Machine, essentially a pair of bound leather fists that flailed mechanically at the patient's belly, "to break down fatty tissue" and encourage blood flow to carry those toxic fats away. There's a mechanical horse and mechanical camel, a massage table fitted with a row of rising and falling wooden elbows, a 1910 bicycle contraption distressingly similar to what is now marketed as the Health Rider and a rowing machine identical to the one Kellogg placed in the gymnasium he designed for the Titanic.
A few of the devices are "interactive": I sat in a working model of Kellogg's Vibrating Chair, a seat equipped with a motor that shimmies 20 times per second, designed to "help overcome nervous fatigue and muscular weakness." My 30 seconds on the hot seat made me think Kellogg had confused cure and cause.
Bottom line: Fascinating for students of medical history, popular health movements and Victorian lifestyles. Essential stop for Adventists on the Battle Creek pilgrimage. Nice educational side trip for families lured to Battle Creek by Cereal World USA (see below), since many of the exhibits are hands-on and geared for young audiences.
Caveat: Anyone seeking a more subtle picture of Kellogg, by most accounts a brilliant and deeply irritating man, will need to do outside reading. "The Road to Wellville" by T. Coraghessan Boyle (Penguin) is a pitiless fictionalized satire of life during Kellogg's and the San's heyday. The tiny gift shop sells a right-down-the-middle biography, "John Harvey Kellogg: Father of the Health Food Industry," by Richard W. Schwarz (Andrews Unversity Press).
Dr. J.H. Kellogg Discovery Center, 300 W. Michigan Ave., Battle Creek, Mich. 49017, 616-963-4000. Donation: $2 per person, $5 per family. Hours vary seasonally.
Nearby: Cereal City USA (616-962-6230), a family infotainment center devoted to the history and products of the (Will) Kellogg company. The 14-story Sanitarium tower (616-961-7015), sold to the U.S. government in 1942 and now a federal office complex, can be toured Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m. For a good meal, try Clara's on the River (616-963-0966), an eclectic, mid-priced restaurant in the renovated railroad terminal filled with Battle Creek memorabilia. If you're making more than a day of it, there's a zoo, museums devoted to cars, airplanes and magic, shopping, nice urban parks and architectural and historic sites. For Adventist heritage tours, call Historic Adventist Village, 616-968-8101.