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Howard County History

Inventing Peanut Butter

By Bonnie Van Kley

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the foods that you eat? Who thought of making the first hamburger? Or who came up with the combination of ingredients and named it pizza? Tradition states that the hamburger originated in Hamburg, Germany. And, of course, pizza was first made in Italy. Just like my ancestors who came from other countries, it seems that all of the foods that I consume had their beginnings elsewhere.

But what about peanut butter? Who thought of and made the first peanut butter? An Internet site devoted to peanut butter states that the Aztecs mashed roasted peanuts into a paste. In 1884 Dr. Marcellus Edson, of Canada, patented peanut paste. In our country Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was the first to make what was called peanut butter. Beginning in 1895 he distributed it to patients in his Battle Creek, Michigan, sanitarium as a healthy protein substitute for vegetarians. But who first produced it for commercial distribution? And how did it make its way to our grocery store shelves?  

Eleven years ago, during my tenure as the HCHS Curator of Archives, I received a phone call from William Shurtleff, founder of the Soyfoods Center in Lafayette, California. He explained to me that for many years he had wondered about and searched extensively for the identity of the person who first commercially produced peanut butter. He went on to explain that it is the only truly American food, because peanut butter is the only food that was first made in the United States. He told me that he had just found an article in a historic magazine printed in February 1899 that stated, “A new factory . . . has just been put into operation in Kokomo, Ind., for the manufacture of butter from peanuts. For a year or more Lane Brothers, of that city, have been working on a process of making butter from peanuts to compete with the product of the farm cow, and have succeeded in producing the desired article.” So, Mr. Shurtleff asked, did I know about the Lane Brothers, and would I be willing to do some research concerning his quest?

Would I be willing? Of course! This meant that I got to do one of my favorite things – local history research. And while I was conducting my research, I reflected on what this could mean. If peanut butter was first commercially produced here, could this be another first for Howard County? 

 A brief examination of historic Kokomo directories in our archives revealed many interesting facts. I found that the Lane Brothers Health Food Company existed as early as 1897, with the company address being 11 McCann. George B. Lane, who lived at 273 S. Palmer with his wife, Lillie, is listed as owner of the company, and in the business section Lane Brothers is under the heading of cereal manufacturers. It was subsequently listed in the business section of the 1900 Kokomo directory as a cereal manufacturer, while George B. Lane’s home address changed to 199 West Lincoln. 
In the 1889 directory, eleven years earlier, I found that George’s occupation was “carpenter,” living at “138 Lincoln” with James and Ira. James, who I later found out was his father, was a “huckster,” and Ira, his brother, was a “stone-mason.” There was also a female named Dora, his sister, at that address. Five years later in the 1894 Kokomo Directory, George’s residence was 212 W. Lincoln, with no job listing. Other Lanes at that address were Miss Dora and James. The listing for his brother Ira showed that his work was “plate glass” and his residence was “s Ohio ave.”   

Since no other information about the Lane Brothers Health Food Company could be gleaned from our archives, my next step was Genealogy and Local History Services in the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library. Perusing microfilms of historic newspapers is another favorite pastime, and I was in my element. What I found was very revealing.

On November 16, 1897, the Kokomo Daily Tribune featured an article entitled “THE LATEST IN BUTTER” revealing Kokomo’s “new industry making a butter from peanuts.” It explained that the factory “makes butter from peanuts-the real, prime, good old yellow cow butter, to all appearances.” It went on to say that “the manufacturers of this new commodity are Lanes Bros., the well known manufacturers of Lane Bros. cereal coffee.” The peanuts were “being ground as fine as the finest flour” and it was “said to be an admirable substitute for real butter.” The writer continued to say that “if the consumption continues to increase at the present rate the old barn yard cow will have a formidable competitor in the butter markets of the world.”

The next year on November 12, 1898, The Kokomo Dispatch, printed a front page article with the headline “BUCKING THE COW – Butter from Peanuts and How It Is Manufactured.” It began with, “Out on Courtland avenue, near the Palmer school-house, stands a curious little factory. It is a modest frame edifice of one story, architecturally speaking, but it has another story but little known even in the immediate neighborhood of its location. This factory is engaged in the manufacture of butter from peanuts. . .” It went on to explain that “the proprietor of this new industry is George B. Lane. . . . Nearly a year ago Mr. Lane began in a small way to convert peanuts into butter using Georgia and Virginia nuts . . . . He now uses the Spanish nuts grown at the Philippines, Cuba and Porto [sic] Rico. . . . At the present cost of the tropical bean the butter is made and sold at fifteen cents per pound. . . . The hulled peanuts are carefully hand-picked to remove all the imperfect grains, after which the nuts are put into a baker’s rotary oven and roasted to a rich brown color. . . . They are then put into a hopper and ground to the finest of flower [sic]. The product comes from the mill looking very much like putty, the natural oil of the nut giving it that consistency. . . . This completes the manufacture, nothing being added, not even salt. . . . The butter is put up in one, two, five, ten, twenty-five and 100-pound cans and sealed. It is used for every purpose cow butter is used and is said to be an excellent substitute for the output of the cow. . . . The peanut butter is in great demand at health resorts and sanitariums throughout the country. It also finds favor with camping parties. Mr. Lane recently filled large orders for the annual camp meeting of the Indiana Baptists at Logansport and Rushville, and had the Spanish war lasted a little longer the butter would probably have been in use in feeding the United States soldiers. . . . Physicians say it is more healthful than that produced by the cow. Mr. Lane also manufactures Lane Bros’ cereal, graham crackers and other health foods, having quite a large trade in Indiana and adjoining states.” 

So, if Lane Brothers was such a successful company, why hadn’t I or anyone I talked to about it ever heard of it? A small paragraph in The Kokomo Dispatch on January 6, 1900, provided an answer. The heading reads “EARLY MORNING FIRE” with the subheading “The Health-Food Concern of Lane Bros. Destroyed.” A small paragraph says, “The Lane Bros’ health-food concern, situated on Courtland avenue, was entirely destroyed by fire Friday morning at 6 o’clock. The cause was an overheated furnace.”

Ten days later, on January 16, an article in the Kokomo Daily Tribune was entitled “TERRE HAUTE WANTS THEM – But Lane Bros. Will Rebuild in This City If They Receive Proper Encouragement.” The writer explained that Lane Bros. “are making an effort to reestablish their plant. Unfortunately the insurance they had on the building and machinery proved to be valueless and they are consequently badly crippled by the fire. They have an industry that employs a number of people and their product meets with such general sale that it gives Kokomo wide advertisement. . . . Lane Bros. have an offer to establish their plant at Terre Haute. They prefer, however, to remain in Kokomo and will do so if reasonable inducements are offered.”

Apparently reasonable inducements were never offered to Lane Brothers, and the factory was never rebuilt. I was unable to find any subsequent articles concerning the company, and it also explains why the company was not listed in any Kokomo City Directory after 1900.

I did find one more pertinent newspaper article – George B. Lane’s obituary. It answered many of my questions about him. He died in Kokomo on July 21, 1930, at the age of 60. Survivors included his widow, Lillie, along with one son, two daughters, and four granddaughters. His older brother, Ira, of Kokomo and two sisters (whose married names were given) also survived him. His parents, James and Rebecca, were “both dead several years.”   
George B. Lane’s history was given in detail. He was born in 1870 in Grant County, the second son of James and Rebecca Lane. The family then moved to Tipton and later to Kempton while George was still a child. When he was 11 years old, the Lanes moved to Kokomo and George lived there until 1919 when he and Lillie moved to Orlando, Florida, because of his “failing health.” Every year they would return to Kokomo for the summer, which explains why he was here at the time of his death. He was buried in Crown Point Cemetery, as were many of his immediate family members.

During my quest I wondered how Mr. Lane became interested in making peanut butter. The background given in his obituary provided the clue. “As a young man, Mr. Lane followed the baker’s trade. He was employed at that time in the Zwisler restaurant in Buckeye street. Thirty-five years ago he went to Battle Creek, Mich., where he was employed for several months by the Kellog [sic] company, and where he made the first peanut butter. . . . He also created other new foods for them. Returning to Kokomo, he started a health food factory. . . . This enterprise was highly successful.” It goes on to say that after his factory was destroyed by fire, Mr. Lane was in “the truck gardening business” locally, and then in 1915, he entered the real estate business, in which he was involved the remainder of his life.

In one of my conversations with Mr. Shurtleff, he said that Dr. Kellogg was a generous man, and most likely gave the rights to market peanut butter to Mr. Lane , or he may have charged George a small fee. In subsequent research, Howard County Historian John Morr was able to find John H. Kellogg’s patent for his “Process of Preparing Nutmeal” filed November 4, 1895, describing the process Dr. Kellogg used to obtain his product from peanuts. It explains, “I subject the nut-kernels to the process . . . whereby I obtain a bifold or double product, namely, a dry and practically white nutmeal and a pasty adhesive substance that is for convenience of distinction termed ‘nut-butter.’” A drawing of the apparatus that Dr. Kellogg used to carry out his process is included.

George Lane’s obituary concludes with a fitting description of the type of man that he was. “Mr. Lane was a man of intelligence, character and thrift. He was largely self taught, but was well informed on a number of subjects. He was straightforward and square in his dealings, did not hesitate to express his convictions and had the respect of all circles in which he was known. The record he leaves is one by which he will be long and pleasantly remembered.”

Curious (or nosy) person that I am, I searched for and found the obituary of George’s brother, Ira. Ira Lane resided in Kokomo since his parents moved here when he was young. He was a skilled stone mason before becoming a Kokomo police officer, a position he held for over 25 years. Although I was unable to find a photo of George Lane, a photo of Ira, with his fellow police officers, is in the archives.  
I also found Ira Lane listed with those who assisted in the construction of the Seiberling Mansion. That list is incomplete, and causes me to wonder if his brother, George, who was a carpenter at that time, may also have helped with building the mansion. We will most likely never know.

What we do know for sure is that peanut butter was being produced and commercially distributed by the Lane Brothers Health Food Company in 1897 in Kokomo, Indiana. At the time that I obtained all of this information concerning George B. Lane, the historical society staff was involved in many other projects to the point that we did not have ample time or manpower to give this information the attention that it required. We did tell the HCHS board about it, and the board members were unsure as to how to proceed. Now that I am no longer involved with day-to-day work as the archivist, I find myself thinking about it and wanting to continue with my quest. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So, I would like to find a descendant of George B. Lane who might possibly have a photograph of him and/or his factory. Any other details about him or his family would also be desirable.

In a recent conversation with Mr. Shurtleff, I asked him what claim he thought we could make. He said we could claim that we are the home of the first commercially produced peanut butter. So, reflecting on this as I’m enjoying my peanut butter on toast, I think, “Yes, another Howard County first!”