Tiny Yukon Land Deeds Prompt New Interest

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In 1955, the sponsor of a radio show called Sgt. Preston of the Yukon put deeds for one square inch of land along the Yukon River into cereal boxes — 21 million tiny parcels in all. Many are now wondering what that land is worth.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

Back in the early days of television, American kids bonded with some quirky heroes a reporter who would dash into a phone booth and emerge as Superman, a fellow in a mask on a white horse known as the Lone Ranger, and a crime-fighting Canadian mountie.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Sergeant Preston")

Unidentified Man: Sergeant Preston of the Northwest Modern Police with Yukon King, swiftest and strongest lead dog breaking the trail in the relentless pursuit of lawbreakers in the wild days of the Yukon.

ADAMS: And before Sergeant Preston made his television debut, he was a hit, of course, on the radio, and that's where he came to the attention of a young advertising executive who was trying to sell cereal. The ad exec was Bobby Smith. Mr. Smith died earlier this month.

Sandy Hausman has this story about how Smith created one of the most successful promotions in U.S. cereal history.

HAUSMAN: It was 1954, and the Quaker Oats Company was in a quandary. Its competitors were launching new sugarcoated breakfast cereals for kids. Quaker didn't approve, but sales of its products were sagging. A young guy at the company's ad agency had an idea. Bobby Smith had read about two Texans who got rich after placing an ad in Life Magazine.

Mr. ROBERT SMITH, JR.: That basically said in return for two or three or $4 - I can't remember the exact amount - we will send you a legal deed to one square inch of land, and it's going to be your Texas ranch.

HAUSMAN: That's Bobby's son, Robert Smith, Jr. His dad knew Quaker was sponsoring "Sergeant Preston" on the radio, so he suggested the company by Yukon Land, divide it into one inch squares, then give deeds away in boxes of cereal. Quaker's lawyers feared it would cost a fortune to register all those lots, but top management was intrigued. So Bruce Baker, a partner in Smith's firm, got on a plane with an attorney and an executive from Quaker. Bobby Smith didn't get to go, but his biographer, Sue Weiger(ph), says he saw pictures and heard stories of their travels in suits and ties.

Ms. SUE WEIGER (Author; Biographer, Bobby Smith): And there they are, you know, tromping through the wilderness in boats, in rustic bars, in (unintelligible) trench coats.

HAUSMAN: They met with a local lawyer who thought it unnecessary to register each square inch of land. So, they drove more than 300 miles to the gold rush town of Dawson City, then took a boat up the Yukon River to inspect 19 acres of land and bought for 1,000 bucks. What happened next paid for the property many times over. Robert Smith, Jr. reads a note his dad got from a brand manager at Quaker.

Mr. SMITH, JR.: It increased sales of Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, so that they had to use two to three shifts to keep up with demand.

HAUSMAN: In a matter of months, the company had given away 21 million deeds to excited customers like eight-year-old David McDonald of Toronto. He ate enough cereal to collect seven or eight deeds, and still recalls the fantasies they inspired.

Mr. DAVID McDONALD: You could certainly imagine, you know, a gold nugget sitting on your square inch. And you could imagine that if you were really lucky, it might be worth something.

HAUSMAN: Eventually, his mother threw the deeds out, but McDonald never forgot them. And years later, he made a documentary called, "Cereal Thriller." At the Yukon Land office, he found correspondence from thousands of kindred spirits - deed holders and their kids.

Mr. McDONALD: People put them in safety deposit boxes, and their heirs found them when they died and they get lawyers to write letters to the Yukon government or Quaker or whoever would listen.

HAUSMAN: But all received the same disappointing news. The land didn't belong to them anymore, nor even to Quaker. In 1965, the company failed to pay $37.20 in taxes, and the government of Canada repossessed the property. What's more, those kids who had dreamed of striking it rich were blissfully unaware of Canadian law.

Mr. McDONALD: When you get land in Yukon, you don't own mineral rights.

HAUSMAN: There is, however, some small consolation. Quaker's kitschy big inch deeds have sold for as much $100 on eBay. Bobby Smith, who died earlier this month at the age 85, would go on to work at advertising giant Leo Burnett, and to help create another wildly popular concept - his name: Captain Crunch.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.

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