Not since the Klondike Gold Rush had the Yukon seen such interest in its land.
Dreaming of adventure and gold, North American children collected millions of authentic deeds to real property near Dawson City, and it only took the simple act of opening a Quaker Oats cereal box to fuel their imaginations.
Granted, the plots were one-square-inch in size, but in 1955 the official deed, complete with seal and lawyer jargon, created one of the biggest cereal marketing campaigns in history.
The Canadian documentary Cereal Thriller explains the marketing phenomenon with personal accounts of those still treasuring their deeds collected 50 years ago and archival footage of the company men who created the campaign.
Written and directed by Ottawa-based filmmaker and journalist David McDonald, Cereal Thriller airs Friday at 8 p.m. on History Television.
Each box of Quaker Oats breakfast cereal contained a deed to one of 21,000,000 lots on the banks of the Yukon River near Dawson, a place of intrigue and adventure thanks to the Quaker-sponsored radio program, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.
The idea of owning a piece of the Klondike stimulated the imagination of kids, said McDonald.
“With all the publicity over Harry Potter these days, the deeds had a similar impact on some kids,” he said. “It allowed their imaginations to go crazy about what they’d do with the land.
“It caused some anxiety, too, because you start to think, ‘who’s watching my land and who’s to stop someone from taking a nugget off my land?’”
The Klondike Big Inch Land Company gave away 21,000,000 deeds on the bank of the Yukon River opposite Dawson. Each deed represented one square inch of property. In total, the area was equivalent to about three footballs fields.
“Almost everybody we talked to for the film — and they hadn’t seen a deed for nearly 50 years — could describe the deed incredibly accurately,” said McDonald.
The advertising for the promotion emphasized the gold-rush aspect of the land, but, while children really owned the small piece of the Klondike, the deed did not come with mineral rights.
“It was funny watching people we interviewed because a lot of them were genuinely pissed off they didn’t have the mineral rights, or didn’t even own the land anymore,” said McDonald.
The language on the deed clarified that the holder did own the land, but had to register the deed with the land-titles office before taking total possession from the Quaker Oats company.
“Of course, not many of us had the bus fare to get up there,” said McDonald.
The “legal mumbo-jumbo,” as one collector put in the movie, on the deed was written in part by former Yukon MP Erik Nielsen, a lawyer in Whitehorse when Quaker Oats advertising man Bruce Baker visited to scope out the property he had just purchased for the promotion.
The idea for the documentary started with a story about the cereal promotion McDonald wrote for the Ottawa Citizen in 1999.
The article, nominated for a National Newspaper Award, prompted responses from people around North America wanting to share their stories about collecting the deeds.
The film mixes archival footage and the promotion’s history, with people, including film critic Joel Siegel and cereal historian Bill Crawford, recounting their days collecting the deeds.
Dianne Brooks now owns a campground in Dawson that sits across the river from where she once owned her one-square-inch piece of land.
Will Sterger, the first National Geographic explorer in residence, was inspired to follow his career after receiving his Big Inch deed.
Another man managed to collect about 10,800 deeds and made a serious attempt to consolidate his land to build something in which he could live.
Two kids in the 1960s tried to create their own country called Xanadu from their collected deeds.
The promotion was a response to the staid Quaker Oats company’s struggle to compete in a cereal market alongside colourful characters like Tony the Tiger. It needed a hook to sell its breakfast cereal.
Once the promotion hit store shelves, kids all over were clamouring for the land and Quaker Oats was besieged for months by letters from people inquiring about their land.
Some people wanted to consolidate their collection of deeds, scattered across the property, into one solid riverfront plot, and one person wanted to create the world’s smallest national park from his one square inch of land.
In the summer, some people still wander into Yukon government offices to inquire about the land they owned.
“Nobody thought this would be any different from other cereal promotions — it would last three or months. But they were pieces of paper and people didn’t throw them out,” said McDonald.
Indeed, people had saved these pieces of paper for decades, thinking they still owned a piece of the Klondike.
But Quaker Oats never paid taxes on the property, which reverted to government ownership after 10 years of neglect.
The land is now part of an area adjacent to the Top of the World Golf Course near Dawson.
“It’s another kick in the face for the kids who thought they owned this land,” said McDonald.
“It was $37.20 in back taxes and penalties and interest. There were a lot of people who said they would’ve paid that money if they’d only known.”