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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Klondike property deed is not worthless to me

My deed is worth a lot in memories. Held together by Scotch Tape, I doubt it has any other value.

My wife wants the basement clean and she's blaming me for the mess. Mess? It's filled with valuable stuff, like this deed for one square inch of land in the Klondike. I found my 56-year-old deed as I was rearranging the basement. I'm operating under the theory that if it's tidy, she'll let me keep my stuff.

If you're wondering about the deed, you are not an early born baby-boomer. It was the winter of 1955 when the Quaker company began one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever. As a tie-in to the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon program which ran on both radio and television, the cereal maker gave away 21 million one-inch square plots in Canada's Yukon Territory.

To get a piece of the land claim action, all a child had to do was coax mom into buying a box of Quaker cereal containing a land deed. 21 million deeds resulted in a lot of action and not just for young buyers of the cereal. The oh-so-legal looking deeds kept Quaker busy for year.

Some people took the campaign a little too seriously. The gathered up thousands of deeds with the goal of creating a large, useful plot of land in the Canadian North. If you're curious about the story, I found the following posted on Yukon Info.

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DAWSON, Yukon Territory – Once upon a time there was an advertising executive in a city called Chicago. His job was to make children yell, “Mommy, I want Quaker Puffed Rice!”

For many years, this man told the children his cereal was shot from guns. This helped his sales. But other cereals had talking tigers and gave away prizes in every box. This hurt his sales. What could the poor businessman do?

He needed a new idea. Or else he would need a new job. He had to think of something catchy and simple and it had to do with the cereal’s radio show about a Mountie in the Yukon. Suddenly, the man knew!

In each box of Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat he would give away a square inch of land in the romantic Yukon right here in Dawson where Sergeant Preston and his trusty dog King had their adventures every week. And so began the Great Klondike Big Inch land Caper, one of the most successful sales promotions in North American business history.

For long after all the rocket rings and plastic submarines arid other cereal-box prizes were lost, millions of those official-looking, legal-sounding, gold-embossed deeds to a square inch of Yukon land remained in drawers, albums, safe deposit boxes, scrapbooks, vaults and, more importantly, in the memory of a generation of men and women not so young anymore.

And given the ravages of the years and the current uncertain economic times, a steadily mounting stream of these former children, their attorneys, their widows and their executors are writing to inquire after their “property,” which they assume has increased in value over all these years.

But, alas, the replies carry sad news. Not only do these people not own the land now. They never did, because each individual deed was never formally registered. The Klondike Big Inch Land Co., an Illinois subsidiary established to handle the cereal’s land affairs, has gone out of business. And anyway, the Canadian government repossessed all the land back in 1965 for nonpayment of $37.20 in property taxes.

But still, the cereal saga won’t die. Thousands of “owners” have written to officials in the Yukon. A vast, sparsely populated area that is one of two of Canada’s northern territories. “Please tell them to stop.” pleaded Cheryl Lefevre. a land-office clerk who stores the Yukon’s files on the matter, files now more than 18 inches thick.

Free Gold Rush LandThe land of course, is still here – Group 2 in lot 243. It is a 19.11-acre plot on the west bank of the Yukon River about three miles upstream from town where, according to crumbling old records in Dawson’s land office, Malcolm McLaren first homesteaded back in 1911.

It is a long way from a suburban Chicago home in 1954, the night before Bruce Baker, the adman was to make his promotional presentation. Before he died three years ago, Baker recounted to a friend his side of the Klondike epic.

Baker was nearly panicked for a new idea, any new idea. When the inspiration came to him, he could almost see the ads: “You’ll actually own one square inch of Yukon land in the famous gold country!”

Quaker Oats hated the idea.

Too many potential legal problems, the lawyers said. It would cost far too much to register every deed to every little cereal-eater out there. Baker suggested, then, that they not register the deeds.
And he found a Yukon lawyer who thought it was legal. Baker flew to the Yukon and, after a harrowing midwinter boat journey, saw the land and bought it for $1,000.

Twenty-one million numbered deeds were printed up. And on Jan. 27, 1955, the promotion was begun on the Sergeant Preston radio show. The response was far beyond Baker’s wildest hopes. Quaker’s puffed cereal plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, could hardly stuff the deeds in fast enough. Within weeks, every box was sold.

As time went on, Quaker redirected its cereal sales. “We do zero promotion now,” said Kathy Rand, Quaker’s public relations manager. “because we’re not positioned for kids. The cereals are no sugar, salt or additives, so they’re aimed at babies or the diet conscious.”

In 1965, the 19.11 acres were seized. In 1966, the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. was dissolved. There were always some “owners” writing for information. But it built to a flood more recently, involving Canadian consuls general in the United States, the Yukon and even the prime minister’s office in Ottawa. Steven Spoerl wrote Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to announce he was declaring the formal independence of his four square inches.

Officials in Ottawa, only slightly amused, send each writer a polite reply telling all correspondents to contact the Quaker Oats Co. in Chicago for details relating to the decades old 'promotional gimmick.' Quaker has the unhappy - and the time consuming - task of telling them that the deeds are worthless, that the Klondike Big Inch Co. no longer exists, and that the Canadian government has taken back the land.

Quaker has been threatened with lawsuits over the matter, and is tired of the time and expense required to answer letters. Quaker executives cringe at the mention of the promotion. John Rourke, the company’s public relations director, claims that they "probably wouldn’t get into such a campaign today because of the legal ramifications."

It’s unlikely, however, that a lawsuit would proceed very far, as the Klondike Big Inch Land Co. has been dissolved and there’s nobody left to sue. In effect, it would be like suing a dead person who has left no assets. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, thanks to the nostalgia boom, a number of memorabilia experts claim the old deeds are now worth as much as $90 each to collectors.

Bruce Baker, the man who started it, takes special delight in pointing out that that makes the deeds worth about twice as much as a share of stock in the Quaker Oats Co. So there you have it. No Klondike property but a nice bit of memorabilia, but occasionally it gets worse.

One American gentleman travelled all over the United States collecting these deeds until he had 10,880. He figured that amounted to about 75 square feet of land and wrote to the Quaker Oats legal department wondering if he could consolidate the different inches into one big chunk. He said he would prefer a piece of land "near the water" and "as quiet an area as possible." Needless to say he was quite perturbed when he learned the story behind the deeds.

“The deeds were not meant to have any intrinsic value,” Quaker says, “but rather to give the consumer the romantic appeal of being the owner of a square inch of land in the Yukon.”

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