The Withington bakery.
DURING the first week in May the old buildings so long the home of the Medford cracker and baking industry were demolished. The vine-clad dwelling, with its latticed entrance, and the quaint old gambrel-roofed store and the sheds containing the ovens are all gone. The place is a scene of busy activity in the erection of the theatre which is to cater to the amusement-seeking public. The local press has furnished a description of this (which promises to be first class and up-to-date), and says that the old building is believed to date back to 1670. Mr. Usher, in his history, said (which we doubt) in 1886 that it was over 230 years, which would place it prior to 1656, thus antedating the earliest authentic house in Medford. Be that as it may, they were two very old houses, and it is not in the scope of this article to work out the problem of their genesis, nor yet of the alterations, additions and moving thither that brought them into their final and familiar shape. It is of the business there conducted and of its promoters that we deal, now a timely subject. There have been three Henry Withingtons. The first appears on the Medford tax list first in 1799, and lived in the old brick building called the ‘College,’ which faced the river on ‘the way to Blanchard's,’ afterward called Ship street. There the second Henry was born on August 9, 1800, just prior to the beginning of ship building by Thatcher Magoun. The old mill beside the river, and the lighters and molasses-laden vessels to the distillery, had his boyish attention, and perhaps he may have assisted his father at the toll-gate on the Andover [p. 50] turnpike a mile from the market-place. Evidently his youthful mind did not fix itself on his father's trade, that of a cordwainer or shoemaker, for he found employment in the household of Hon. Timothy Bigelow. As ‘scullion,’ he styled himself, and perhaps his service in Squire Bigelow's house inclined him to what became his lifelong occupation. In recent years his successors placed on their sign, ‘Established 1825.’ Henry Withington had never learned the trade or business of a baker by apprenticeship, but with good judgment gained by observation, ‘took up’ the occupation, and with a partner, and employing experienced help, started in business in that year. The ovens that Withington and Lane used were those of some earlier baker and were located in the rear of Mr. Barker's house. This house was moved beyond Gravelly brook in 1846 to make room for the Mystic church. After two years Mr. Lane went out and Mr. Withington continued in business by himself. But on December 25, 1827, he took in another partner, as he married Eunice Blanchard, daughter of the famous Medford innkeeper, the ceremony being performed by the Rev. Caleb Stetson, who had early in that year begun a pastorate in Medford of twenty-one years. They came to live in the house on Salem street, across River street from the ancient burial ground, which was over thirty years ago moved next the common. In 1830 Mr. Withington moved into the old house now demolished, leasing it for five years. He had then a daughter, born April 20, 1829. He transferred his baking operations to the shop and ovens formerly of Convers Francis, which were in the rear of the Francis residence, on a lane that has since become Ashland street. At the expiration of his lease he had so well established himself that he purchased the houses he occupied (and where his son Henry was born on August 30, 1832), together with the land extending backward and on which the new theatre is being built. Andrew Blanchard was [p. 51] then the owner, as also of the Francis residence, lately the Medford Historical Society's building. Henry Withington subsequently erected in the rear of his purchased home, buildings suitable for his purpose and to house the two new ovens he built, and in later years added another oven to the plant. Up to 1840 all the bakery work was done by hand, but in 1845 he purchased machinery for making crackers. The old process was interesting. A small piece of dough was rolled under each palm, thus making two at a time. These were flattened by a rolling-pin and docked, i.e., pricked by hand. This latter was done by the children. It caused the mass to split in the middle, otherwise it would rise like a biscuit. The steam generated in the baking dough passed out through the holes, and left the mass adhering at the edge and easily separated or cracked—hence the name, crackers. Mr. Withington did not originate the Medford cracker. That was done by Convers Francis, who in 1797 succeeded his former master, Ebenezer Hall, in business at Medford, and continued therein some twenty years, when he retired. After him there were several other bakers in Medford, and the establishing of the business in 1825 by Mr. Withington seems to have been a ‘survival of the fittest.’ The Medford invention of Mr. Francis seems not to have suffered in any wise, under the Withington manufacture, and its fame became more extended and his product an article of export. A Medford traveller found ‘Medford Crackers’ in the shops of London in 1834. In those days fagots were principally used to heat the ovens. They were furnished by the farmers and others who cleared land. They were mostly of birch sprouts, which, bundled and withe bound, brought two cents a bunch, and made a brisk fire. After the third oven was built, ‘trash’ wood, in four-foot lengths, was used, and still later, coal. A bulky load of fagots, hauled by a yoke of oxen guided by the goad in the hand of a farmer lad in a long blue frock, would be a novelty in Medford [p. 52] square today, but was frequently seen in the old ‘marketplace.’ In 1862 the third Henry Withington, whose birth has been mentioned, succeeded to the business. He, also, ‘took it up,’ his father assisting, and enlarged the same, adding other machinery and removing one of the earlier ovens. In place of this he erected a rotary oven and introduced a steam engine, supplanting the horse-power of previous years. This oven had an iron frame, with soapstone shelves, that in its turning brought the bread nearer the door for removal. The amount of flour used was largely increased, amounting to upwards of forty barrels weekly. Before the invention of later grinding machinery, winter wheat was considered best, but after, flour from spring wheat was the more satisfactory. Beside crackers the elder Withington made the standard brick loaf, the two-cent roll, cakes with sugar, molasses gingerbread, seed-cakes and buns. The younger added oyster, oatmeal, graham and soda biscuit to the cracker list, and various kinds of pies. Of the latter, Washington was the specialty. He used, in August, to lay in a season's supply of raspberry jam, a half ton in hundredpound cans. This pie was of the George variety, as in those days the Booker had not attained the present popularity. To keep the output of the bakery ready on time, there was a night and day force of workmen. Brown bread was made in four sizes, ten to forty cents, and sold whole, half or quarter. Six hundred and fifty loaves were sold on Sunday, but no beans, i.e., they were not in the stock. But if they ‘didn't know beans’ in stock, they did in the oven, for more than one hundred Medford housewives sent theirs prepared for baking on Saturday evening, and received a tin check therefor. The check number was chalked on the bean-pots, and the payment of ten cents secured the finished product for the Sunday breakfast and the beans went to the right spot. The writer remembers walking from his home a mile and a half away [p. 53] in his first year of housekeeping in 1870—a half loaf sufficed for two—and wrapped in that old-time brown paper kept his hands warm on the homeward journey; and it tasted good, too. Five hundred to one thousand loaves of bread daily was the usual amount made, reaching one thousand four hundred at one time. Five teams were on the road, and in the younger man's time shipments were made to New Hampshire and Maine. The local teams had regular routes and customers, and the baker's wagon's coming was heralded by the jingling of sleigh bells worn by the horses the year round. Many of the grown-ups of Medford will recall their weekly errand to the old bakery for ‘baker's yeast,’ and the big tub brought into the shop and ladled out by the ‘cent's worth’ to the waiting crowd. Mr. Withington sold out to Ewen McPherson in 1885, and he later to Mr. Barker, who some years ago gave up the business, since which time little or nothing has been done there, the last occupants of the shop being the Order of Moose, whatever that may be. The dwelling was occupied until the last, the occupants only removing after the wrecking force had begun operations. The old bakery in its palmy days was ‘the real thing.’ It may not seem so to the observer, whose gauge mark is the ‘Sunshine,’ or the ‘Thousand Windows,’ but in the truer comparison of times, means and market, it was a noted, successful business enterprise, a credit to the proprietors and the old historic town in which it flourished. Mr. Henry Withington (the third) still lives but a few rods away, is hale and hearty, and for twenty-two years has faithfully served his native city as one of the Board of Assessors, is still at his post, doing as faithful, honorable work there as in the old days and old bakery, which is now only a memory.
note.—I am indebted to Miss E. M. Gill for notes of information collected by her, relative to the bakery.