By Barbara Riddle
Memories swirl in puffs through my brain. Small puffs…the shape of Quaker Puffed Rice?
It’s 1955, and I am sitting at the yellow Formica table in our little kitchenette inside our two-room suite at The Marlton Hotel on West 8th Street. I could not believe my luck. My mother had managed to purchase and bring home a box of Quaker Oats cereal, inside of which was a deed—a genuine deed—to one square inch of land in the Yukon, home of Sergeant Preston and his valiant dog King. I was only 11, but I was a landowner! All I had to do was fill in my name and stash it somewhere safe.
Where would that safe place have been? Where is my deed now? Long ago, we were evicted from our suite. My boxes of Albert Payson Terhune collie books, my posters of Tab Hunter, and my deed to a square inch of land in the Yukon may still be gathering mold and rat droppings in the basement of the newly elegant Marlton Hotel; it is the current gathering place of the hip demimonde of the West Village.
Thanks to the Internet (the partially reliable gatekeeper of nostalgia and other lies we tell ourselves), I traveled back in time to verify Quaker Oats’ astonishing promotional campaign. It was the brainchild of Chicago advertising executive Bruce Baker. Playing off the popularity of the radio program “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” (cue whistling winds), the Quaker Oats company bought 19.11 acres of land in the Canadian Yukon and distributed 21 million “deeds” for a one-square inch of land. The deeds were distributed by the Great Klondike Big Inch Land Company, a legal entity Quaker Oats set up.
The lawyers Quaker Oats had consulted said the deeds did not need to be registered. (It was too expensive). Thus, none of the “deed” holders actually ever owned anything. The land company was dissolved in 1965 after the Canadian government repossessed the land because of $37.20 in unpaid back taxes.
Apparently, Canadian officials still have to deal with inquiries from heirs who have inherited these deeds, stuffed in trunks and desks all over America. Sadly, they are technically worthless, but as memorabilia, they might fetch $40 on eBay.
I wonder: Could Donald Trump have been inspired by the Great Klondike Big Inch Land Company? Did his fever for real estate, initiated by his father, get inflamed by the adrenaline rush of opening that box and holding in his hands the gold-stamped, ornate certificate? It’s a sickness, this wanting to own property.
To this day (and to my shame), I don’t remember a more exhilarating childhood sensation than signing my name on that deed. Of course, I was a little girl who had moved so often that my nickname became “rolling stone Riddle,” and I craved the security of a permanent home.
Even a whiff of that deceptive feeling of ownership was intoxicating. And still, for the Villagers new and old who roam our streets, probably our number one preoccupation is, in fact, real estate: the unending, grim struggle to secure a private, peaceful refuge from the chaotic outside world. If only we could return to the concept of the original inhabitants of America: The land belongs to no one. The land belongs to all.
Greenwich Village native Barbara Riddle is a frequent contributor to WestView News. Her memoir-in-progress can be read at www.