Those that know me well, know that when I lock onto something, good luck getting me to let go. It can be a blessing and a curse. I hem and haw over the littlest of things, search high and low for that perfect “something”, and often spend too much time, energy, and stress trying to bring something to fruition. Last month, when I joined the Oakland Urban Paths walk in the area of Oakland once known as the town of Brooklyn, we stopped at the old Mother’s Cookies factory. When I saw her smiling face on the iron sign now marking the live/work lofts that exist in the old brick building, I was instantly brought back to iced oatmeals and rainbow speckled circus animals. I hadn’t thought of them in years, since my childhood. I knew I had to do something to honor this local company’s history, I just didn’t know that not one, but two love stories would fall into my lap. So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, let me tell you a story…
The story of Mother’s Cookies began in 1914, with a young man named Noah Mique Wheatley, an orphan from England who wound up working on a farm in Canada at the age of 14, much like an indentured servant. Noah, who preferred to go by his middle name of Mique, ran away at the age of 16, with only a 6th grade education. He made his way to San Francisco, where he worked hard as a newspaper vendor on the corner of Market and Kearny Streets.
Everyday, an elderly couple would walk past his cart with a basket of vanilla cookies which they sold door-to-door. As it does to most of us, the delicious smell of fresh baked cookies intoxicated him and he finally stopped the couple, tried one, and decided to buy the rights to the recipe right then and there.
With San Francisco still struggling to recover from the destruction left by the 1906 earthquake, Mique came across the bay to Oakland and began producing 2,000 vanilla cookies a night from a 3 square foot oven in his small bakery on 12th Street. When it was time to hire help, he placed an ad in the paper and hired 2 young women, Grace, and her cousin Leopoldine. Despite a significant age difference, romance blossomed; Mique was enchanted by the young Leopoldine and the two soon married.
After numerous internet searches, a trip to the Oakland History Room, and several emails with the Wheatley’s granddaughter, Diana Cuttrell, the above is the only picture I have been able to find of Mique and Leopoldine, believed to be the young lady in the middle.
You could go on to say “the rest is history”. The Wheatley’s continued to work hard, churning out their boxes of vanilla cookies at $1.00/box. They loaded up their deliveries in a horse-drawn cart, pulled by a rented horse appropriately named “Vanilla”. Eventually the Model T took Vanilla’s place, and by 1922 the bakery outgrew its small storefront. Mique used every dime he had, even selling a beloved piano, and bought a larger bakery on 18th Street in Oakland, which is the one I visited.
Mique and Leopoldine had 2 children together, Eleanor and Floyd. They lived a comfortable life in a home on 7th Avenue in Oakland. As shared in an interview Leopoldine did with her great granddaughter Laura during her later years, she and Mique traveled the world several times over, both with their children and without. The company continued to flourish and grow, and in 1949 they moved to the large production facility on 81st Street in Oakland. The company remained there until it declared bankruptcy in 2008, although the brand was later revived by Kellogg in 2009.
Unfortunately, Mique passed away in 1955 and his son Floyd took over the company. Leopoldine continued to be heavily involved in Mother’s Cookies. Prior to her husband’s death she served as Director, and later as Treasurer. From 1951-1971, she was Chairman of the Board of Directors. Eventually she held the title of Director, Emeritus. As her duties with the company wound down, and she enjoyed time at her beloved home and with her several grandchildren, her door was open to an unexpected 2nd chance at love.
At the age of 86, a knock at the door would change her life as she knew it in her later years. On the other side, stood a man in a white suit, holding a bouquet of flowers. That man was Ole Knudsen. Ole owned a grocery store in Oakland, one which Mique and Leopoldine would deliver cookies to. One day, Ole read an article about Leopoldine in the newspaper, and saw that she was widowed, as was he. So, he took a chance, knocked on her door, and said “I’m nuts, I haven’t got anything for sale and I don’t want to buy anything, but I knew you in 1920 and I would like to meet you again.” The rest is truly history. The two married in 1978…on Valentine’s Day :o)
This picture from their wedding day makes me grin, just like the apple cheeked mother seen on the front of every pack of Mother’s Cookies :o)
In the interview Leopoldine did with her great granddaughter, Ole was in the room and while they were talking about how the two of them met, Ole said to her “I met you in 1920 when you had your first baby. She (Leopoldine) came rolling down East Eighteenth Street right in front of my butcher shop and she was so proud and she had the cutest smile you ever saw. And I’ve been in love with her ever since!”
Ole and Leopoldine lived happily together for 10 years. Ole passed away in 1988 and Leopoldine passed in 1992, at the age of 98.
In the same interview I referenced above, when asked what special moments she had had in her life, she said “Oh, I have had a lots of happy days, I’ve had a beautiful life, a very romantic life at times, a very dramatic life at times.” I loved this reflection; happiness, romance, and a bit of drama…a dose of each, and maybe a cookie or two, are the perfect ingredients to a life well led.
I would like to extend a very special thanks to Diana Cuttrell, the granddaughter of Noah & Leopoldine Wheatley. She and I connected after I came across her name in an internet search, and her very gracious patience with my inability to “let things go” was so appreciated. She was a source of such great information, I cannot thank her enough…
Mother’s Milestones: motherscookies.com
OMC Lofts History Page
Noah Wheatley thread on RootsChat.com
Information supplied via Diana Cuttrell, granddaughter of Noah & Leopoldine Wheatley, including section of transcript of interview done by Leopoldina’s great granddaughter, Laura.
40 Years of Progress for Mother’s Cookie Bakery, published by Clissold Publishing Co, Copyright 1954
Mother’s Cookie Publication Honoring Mother’s First Lady, March 22, 1977 (believed to have been printed in the Oakland Tribune)
Featured Image – 1980’s Mother’s Cookie Logo, Allen via flickr
Mother’s Cookie Lofts Picture: Adrienne Schell
Early Photo in front of 1st Mother’s Cookie Storefront, Early picture of Mother’s Cookie factory on 81st Street, and picture of Mique & Floyd Wheatley: 40 Years of Progress for Mother’s Cookie Bakery, published by Clissold Publishing Co, Copyright 1954
More recent image of Mother’s Cookie Factory in 2006: Russell Mondy via flickr
Picture of Leopoldine Wheatley with her grandchildren as well as on the couch supplied by Diana Cuttrell.
Picture of Leopoldine Wheatley & Old Knudsen supplied by Diana Cuttrell