Springfield’s connection to Mar-A-Lago
Heir to the Post fortune envisioned her Florida estate as a winter White House. Now it is.
What do Grape Nuts and Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago estate have in common? They were both created by members of the famous Post family who were born right here in Springfield.
Charles W. Post was born on Oct. 26, 1854. His father, Charles Rollin Post, was a friend of Abraham Lincoln; in 1865, the elder Post was part of the honor guard that accompanied Lincoln’s body back to Springfield. C. W. Post attended public schools in Springfield and spent two years at the Illinois Industrial University (today’s University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) but left without a degree. He then did a brief stint in the militia with the Springfield Zouaves (after the Chicago Fire of 1871, Post’s company enforced martial law in Chicago under General Phil Sheridan). In 1874, Post returned to Springfield and married his childhood sweetheart, Ella Letitia Merriweather.
For several years Post worked as a traveling salesman for an agricultural implements firm. Mechanically gifted, Post developed his own designs for farm implements, including a plow, harrow, cultivator and hay-stacking machine, all of which he patented. In 1882, Post founded the Illinois Agricultural Works at the corner of 10th and South Grand streets to produce the “Capital City Cultivator,” an implement of his own design. At its peak, the company employed 150 men and produced more than 7,000 cultivators per year and seemed to be on track to becoming one of Springfield’s leading industries.
Within a few years, however, the company was experiencing financial problems, reportedly caused by a local banker making unauthorized loans in the company’s name. By 1886, the Illinois Agricultural Works faced 13 lawsuits for sums that topped $50,000 in aggregate. The strain of it all proved too much for Post, who suffered a nervous breakdown that left him unable to work for several months.
In early 1887, Post’s parents moved to Texas; C. W. and Ella joined them after the birth of their daughter, Marjorie, that spring. For the next three years, Post worked in real estate development outside Fort Worth, until stress and overwork again led to a mental and physical breakdown.
Desperate for a cure, Post traveled with his wife and daughter to the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where he placed himself under the care of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Post was especially taken with the “healthy” diet espoused by Kellogg, and in 1895 he started the Postum Cereal Company to create his own line of dietary products. His first product, Postum, was a grain-flavored, caffeine-free coffee substitute that became especially popular during World War I when coffee was rationed. In 1897 he developed Grape Nuts, a “scientific food” rich in “brain and nerve rebuilding elements,” followed up in 1904 by a cornflake cereal called Elijah’s Manna, which was later renamed Post Toasties.
By the early 20th century, Post was one of the richest men in America. Back in Springfield, the former Post family residence at 541 Black Ave. was sold to the King’s Daughters for use as a home for aged women. Post made generous contributions to the renovation of the home when it was damaged by fire in 1902, and set up an endowment fund in memory of his mother. The building is now owned by Benedictine University.
By 1913, Post’s health and mental stability began to deteriorate again. In January of 1914 he suffered another nervous breakdown. Two months later, he was stricken with appendicitis and rushed to Minnesota by express train to be operated on by William and Charles Mayo, the nation’s preeminent surgeons. The operation was reportedly successful, yet Post’s stomach problems persisted. Depressed over his failing health, Post shot himself to death on May 9.
Post’s daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post, was 27 when she inherited the Postum Cereal Company and one of the largest fortunes in America. According to her biographer, Marjorie Post took her wealth and “rode it with a full‐throttle, life‐relishing zest.” She married four times, amassed a museum-quality collection of Russian czarist art, wore 20-carat earrings that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, owned the largest private yacht in the world, and divided her time between four estates. The largest of these, the 128-room Mar-A-Lago, in Palm Beach, Florida, was completed in 1927 at a cost of $7 million.
Marjorie, who died at age 86 in 1973, willed the Mar-A-Lago estate to the United States government for use as a winter White House. The federal government, however, was not interested in paying the $1 million annual maintenance fees and returned the estate to the Post Foundation in 1981. The Post family immediately listed the estate for sale, but it languished on the market for years until Donald J. Trump paid a visit to Palm Beach. Taken with the size and grandeur of the estate, he offered $25 million for the mansion and all its contents. When the Post family refused, Trump purchased the beachfront property directly in front of Mar-A-Lago and threatened to block its view by building a huge house. Outmaneuvered, the Posts sold him the estate for less than $8 million. Today the Mar-A-Lago is an exclusive, members-only club, with private quarters reserved for Trump and his family. Recently, Trump declared his intention to use Mar-A-Lago as a “winter White House,” at last fulfilling Marjorie Post’s vision for the luxury estate.
Erika Holst is a writer, historian, and frequent contributor to the Illinois Times.