Wheaties 1947 ad campaign featured Corvallis grain farmer and son
In 1947 General Mills came to Montana to promote its Breakfast of Champions.
In our Montana Moment we took a step back in time to learn about the Wheaties advertising campaign that featured the Corvallis grain farmer they called the Wheat King and his young son.
Lars Peterson was a Swedish immigrant who took top prizes at fairs all over Montana. For years running he won first place trophies at the International Grain and Hay Show in Chicago.
Lars and his son Gene raised Hard Turkey Red and Durum wheat varieties on their ranch in the Sapphire Mountains east of Corvallis.
Mark Peterson, who is Lars' grandson and Gene's son, took NBC Montana to what was his family's homestead on an early fall day.
Standing on the hill above a stunning view of the old place he pointed to the landmarks.
"We're just coming into the homestead where the barn and everything is," he said. "We're looking into the bottom of Birch Creek."
It was here, 10 miles from any major road, that General Mills came to promote Wheaties.
Mark has provided scores of pictures of his grandfather and dad and their productive wheat ranch to the Ravalli County Museum. Some of those pictures feature Lars and Gene eating Wheaties.
"They always called it the Breakfast of Champions," said Mark. " They were looking for the highest protein winter wheat, and my grandpa had it."
Mark said the men were never on the Wheaties box. It was an early ad campaign, and in one of the pictures Lars is seen with a Wheaties box.
Mark said they called his dad "The Montana hillbilly."
"General Mills just loved him," he said. "He was a pretty handsome guy in those pictures."
Famous Montana photographer Ernst Peterson (no relation) took a number of pictures of the Wheat King and his son on their dry-land wheat ranch. His eye captured the expanse of the country with waves of grain that stretched for miles.
"Oh," said Mark, standing on one of the hills overlooking the place, "there must be something in this soil."
He said Farmer-Stockman took notice of the Wheat King and his consistently good crops. Allis-Chalmers provided its newest equipment for the Peterson men to test.
Mark has other pictures of teams of horses that were used on the farm in its early days.
Today the Peterson ranch is still intact but under new ownership. They don't grow wheat here anymore.
The Peterson wheat ranch began with a 160-acre homestead that Lars came to in 1912.
Mark showed us that original homestead on the ranch, where Lars and Mark's grandmother built the first cabin. All that's left are the lilacs his grandmother loved.
The first cabin burned down and the Petersons moved farther north. There they built another house in 1914. Mark showed us all around that house, which was built from logs harvested on the ranch.
Gene Peterson and his sisters were born here.
Mark pointed to faded carvings on the side of the house.
"They all got their names here," he said. "All their initials. "
He pointed to his dad's marks -- Gene VP.
Mark has fond memories of sleeping in this house when he was growing up.
He closed and latched the door. "It's just a good old homestead," he said.
The Wheat King would expand that original 160-acre homestead to 2,600 acres. Mark said the ranch made money. Wheat fields were everywhere, on the hillsides and on flatter stretches overlooking the entire valley.
"All they had to do was look down," he said, "And whoa," he laughed, "there's people down there."
Mark took us to a part of the ranch they called the horse pasture.
"This was one of the biggest fields," he said. "I remember when it was all gold. Yeah, it was pretty."
Granaries are spread all over the ranch. They are made of logs and steel and sealed tight to prevent leakage.
Just about everywhere you look there's open space in this remote country.
"It was considered being in the boonies," said Mark.
It was even a long way to the country school. Mark said Gene and his sisters walked 4 miles to the Dominic School.
But the family had everything they needed -- milk cows, a garden, a trap line and plenty of wild meat.
Mark, who carries his binoculars everywhere, put them to his eyes and scanned the horizon.
"There's a whole bunch of elk right there," he pointed.
Hunting is as much a part of Mark's family as the wheat fields, Birch Creek and the mountains they're rooted in.
"I bring my daughter up here," said Mark. "She just loves it."
Mark's young daughter Emma got her elk up on the ranch.
"Grandpa and Great-Grandpa were there right beside me," Emma told her dad when she shot her elk.
"I couldn't believe she said that," said Mark.
He believes the wheat ranchers' spirits are here in this mountain homestead. It's where his grandfather belonged -- on the east side where the grain fields felt the first splash of light.
"He just loved the Sapphires," said Mark. "The sun comes up on it first and it stays here."
Sagebrush is starting to take over the old wheat fields. But the light still catches where they used to be, where the landscape is yellow.
"You're stepping back in time," said Mark, peering across the valley to the west and to the mountains in the east.
He points to Dominic Peak in the distance. Gene's ashes were spread there and on other parts of the ranch.
It's here in this quiet place that Mark feels closest to his dad and grandfather. He raises his hand above his head and waves.
"I wave all the time," he said. "I always wave."
"They were always waving," he said, of the handsome Montana hillbilly and the Wheat King, who together grew the best winter wheat in America.