What a wonderful idea that our city has smelled like Cheerios for more than 75 years now, and it’s even luckier than just the soul-warming smell of baking cereal.
The fact that sweet delicious Cheerios are the sole survivor in our odoriferous industry category is really a reason to celebrate, and it's just another one of those strokes of luck that has helped us feel better about the city so many of us hated for so long. It’s tough to hate a place that smells like Lucky Charms, which is how I’ve described that sweet oat smell for decades.
Even before Buffalo smelled like Cheerios, the smells of other cereals made by General Mills here wafted through the air.
My grandfather — who later worked at General Mills for a few years — grew up during the Depression walking over to the dumps across Fuhrmann Boulevard from the plant with his friends to pick through the trash for unopened boxes of cereal that, for one reason or another, got tossed.
They might have eaten a handful or two of the cereal — this was the Depression, after all — but the main purpose for these trips to the dump was to bust open the boxes to get their hands on the toys and trinkets that were included as premiums with the cereal.
There’s no doubt Gramps would have noticed the smell of Cheerios in the air, but he might not have been impressed with it, having lived the first 41 years of his life across the street from a grain elevator and malting house on Fulton Street in “The Valley” neighborhood. (That neighborhood is often lumped into the First Ward or South Buffalo by outsiders — but usually not by the folks who live there.)
A few blocks away from his house near Fulton and Smith, Ralston Purina had an elevator and mill similar to General Mills', near Prenatt and Smith.
It was the same sort of operation. Grain was hauled in and milled, and the smell of processing and baking filled the air for miles around. Just like the smell of Cheerios is inescapable as you traverse Canalside at the right times, for the people of the Valley and miles around, the smells of Purina were inescapable.
The only difference was, Purina made dog food. The smell wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but not something you’d want to celebrate on a T-shirt. One longtime resident said the dog food operation smelled like sweet but slightly rancid grain: Like maybe someone spilled a cheap beer on the carpet last week, and it had been baking in the sun. The odor on its own wasn’t heartwarming, but knowing it was dog food baking didn’t necessarily inspire folks to delight in long pulls of air into their nostrils and down into their lungs.
Even when the wind turned and it was Cheerios in the air, could you be sure? Just another sweet, grainy smell that might be cereal from a few miles that way, beer a mile that way, or dog food a few blocks that way.
That was when you were lucky enough to have any grainy essence in the air. It was far more likely that the atmosphere of the Valley and surrounding neighborhoods would be filled with the smells of heavy industry from places like chemical manufacturer National Aniline, the Mobil refinery, Republic Steel and Hanna Coke. Just like Purina, these places were all within a short walk of the Valley. And just like Purina, these places stopped churning out smells — and paychecks — decades ago.
The Purina Mill turned out animal feed for 55 years until it was closed in 1970. The building was torn down in the early ’80s.
So for anyone who has wondered how it’s only been for the last decade or two we’ve celebrated that “our city smells like Cheerios” when it’s smelled that way for 75 years … it’s much easier to get excited when the last smell standing is such a great one.