Crackers & Milk
Welcome to February’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
On my hutch sits a very large, decorative cup and saucer with a much yellowed piece of paper dated January 8, 1984 sitting in the cup. Part of the message from my mother reads “For Peggy – This was Grandpa Johnson’s ‘cracker & milk’ set for as long as I can remember.” Inside another cupboard lives my father’s plain, white porcelain bowl that was used for the same purpose. The generation bowl item ends there but I did have crackers & milk!
The beginning of the St. Johnsbury Cracker was 86 Main Street where St. Johns’s Catholic Church stands today. Around 1855 the St. Johnsbury Bakery was started by John S. Carr. Ownership changed a few times until the late 1860’s when William P. Fairbanks sold it to George Cross. George had learned from his father who ran a bakery and confectionery business in Montpelier. Gratefully a lot can be gleaned from this operation due to the St. Johnsbury Caledonian writing of “St. Johnsbury’s Industries” in April of 1880. The writer takes us through the bakery and tells us that production of the cracker is up to thirty barrels a day. Each barrel would hold from 1100 to 1200 crackers depending on the size.
In a year, coming by train, would be 1800 to 2000 barrels of flour from Minnesota, 30,000 pounds of the “best refined lard” from Chicago. Employment in the Main Street bakery was from ten to fourteen men. The making of the crackers required the most skill, less for the bread, cakes and other items. Picture this – the oven has a large rotary, horizontal disc which is 16 feet, 6 inches in diameter! This disc is made of soapstone with an even heat provided by coal with the capacity of making two barrels of crackers at a time. The bakery purchases between 60 to 70 tons of coal a year.
The process went as follows; the sponge is set in the morning, the dough made in the afternoon, machinery run by steam mixes the dough, and it stands until the following day. The dough is put through rollers making it into sheets of equal thickness and then another machine cuts the size of the crackers and they are shoveled into the oven. The finished product bakes 15 to 17 minutes then they are removed and shoveled into baskets before being packed in barrels. Common, soda, graham, oyster and picnic crackers were the varieties made. Salesmen distributed the crackers from Newport to Springfield, Vermont, from Malone, N. Y. to Sebago Lake in Maine and as far south as parts of Concord, N.H.
Expansion in the 1890’s saw a move to Railroad Street, because expansion on Main Street met with opposition. The brick building stood just south of Caplan’s store, being torn down in 1957. In the 1960’s the St. Johnsbury Cracker left town and crossed the river to New Hampshire. For those of you who never experienced this common cracker, I would say the taste was bland and very dry but eaten plain, or split in two and heated up with butter or broken into a bowl with milk poured over them (often on Sunday nights) – people just liked them.
The final chapter is that the recipe lives on as the Vermont Country Store bought the recipe in 1981 and makes them in Rockingham,Vermont. They are called Vermont Crackers – much smaller than the ones I was brought up with and they now come in plastic bags rather than the red and white boxes but they are still dry!!
We are located in the Summer Street School building while we seek a permanent home. We are currently raising money to purchase the former law offices of Primmer & Piper at 421 Summer St. A 250 Club has been started where you can give a thousand dollars as an individual, a family, a business, a club, group or any other creative donation you might have. We have until the end of March to achieve the goal of 250 thousand dollars. WE HAVE HIT THE HALFWAY MARK! Please check out our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is P.O. Box 223, St. Johnsbury, Vt. 05819 and our phone number is 802-424-1090.