We spent a lot of our early years driving back and forth on Interstate 70–Philadelphia, Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Denver. It’s one of the unsexiest roads in America: ragged pavement, relentless trucks, miles of urban and industrial sprawl. Because the road is so disagreeable, we’ve blown through the stretch from Columbus to St. Louis more times than we can count.
On a recent trip, we were driving US 40 (the National Road) instead, just to avoid the interstate, and passed through downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, a place we’ve skirted dozens of times.
Sitting proudly on a corner was a nicely kept brick building with a big green awning that sported the distinctive red and white Clabber Girl logo. If you’ve ever been at a Roadtrek gathering with the Burketts, you’ll know that we are biscuit makers, and that box of baking powder with the picture of the curly-haired girl is always on our shelf. The sign in the window below the awning said bakery-café, and who could pass that up?
To our great disappointment, the café had closed for the day, but the museum with which is shared the first floor was still open. We spent the better part of an hour wandering through the building. To be fair, the story should start with clabber. Early Scots immigrants brought this yogurt-like curdled milk dish with them when they came to Appalachia. Southern cooks soon realized that a couple of spoonfuls, added to a batter, made biscuit, cake, and bread doughs rise quickly and reliably. Soon after, enterprising homemakers mixed dried clabber with a few other common kitchen ingredients and made the first baking powder.
At the museum, we learned that Francis Hulman, a German immigrant, was a successful grocer in Terre Haute. In 1850 he convinced his brother Herman to join him, and they began a wholesale grocery enterprise that is still robust today, known mostly for kitchen basics like baking powder, cornstarch, gelatin, and pudding mixes. Their grandson Tony is a legendary figure in the town. He was a major donor in the campaign to build the Catholic church, a major donor to the first local hospital, and helped build the Rose-Hulman technical institute. The Hulman company installed the first telephone switchboard in town (you can see it in the museum), and were early adopters of electric lights and equipment.
Tony spread the Clabber Girl brand far and wide with advertising campaigns. His branded horse-drawn delivery wagons traveled four states to promote and deliver Clabber Girl products to hundreds of mom and pop grocery stores in cities and little towns. After World War 2, Tony’s friend Eddie Rickenbacker convinced him that the run-down Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be another great advertising gambit, and even today the Hulman Company owns The Brickyard. Hulman himself raced a bit, and his car, The Gray Ghost, is on display at the museum.
Also at the museum a replica kitchens from different eras. In the 1850s kitchen, we learned that bakers tested the temperature of their coal or wood fired oven by sticking in a hand. A quick oven was one from which the hand was withdrawn in a hurry, and was best for cooking biscuits and such. A slow oven was just the opposite, and was the way to go with roasts and tough cuts of meat. Beyond the museum is the cafe, a display of the original electric generator for the factory, and a teaching kitchen, where bakers demonstrate their craft. A tray of danish pastries, clearly left over from a recent event, was on the counter. Tom didn’t see why we shouldn’t sample one, but I was adamant that he leave them alone.
One door, a dozen stories. We literally had the place to ourselves. Next time our paths cross, we’ll tell you about Rex Coffee and how it was resurrected. Or about Francis’ letter to Herman that convinced him to emigrate. If you don’t stop here, stop somewhere else. Just stop, and you’ll find something worth looking at. Chances are good you might see us too, because we spend almost all our time hanging out here, far off (or just off) the beaten path.
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