Source: NMHS Newsletter, August 1986

My sister Lena, brothers Ivan, Royal and I, were glad when Papa said that we could stay at Grandpa’s while he and Mama went to Wabash for the day.  “Grandpa’s,” was the farmstead of Mama’s parents, Isaac and Mary Frantz Cripe, three miles west of North Manchester.

Grandma and Aunt Edna welcomed us warmly and took us down to the kitchen-family room.  It was bake day and they were already working with the dough and other ingredients that by the alchemy of baking in their brick oven would become delicious bread, pies and cakes.

Grandpa grew wheat, harvested it with a binder pulled by three horses and threshed it with his own steam threshing rig.  He and sons John and David also threshed for most of the farmers in the area for many years.  With horses and wagon he hauled some wheat to the water-powered grist mill on Eel River at North Manchester where it was ground into flour and bran.  There were quite a few mills on Eel River seventy years ago.  Most farm families baked their own bread, frequently from their own wheat.

Grandma said, “Lena, bring your brothers; it is time to build a fire in the oven.”  This surprised Lena a bit.  She had always seen Mother build a fire in the firebox of our kitchen range when she did the baking—but in the oven??  We boys came running to see what Grandma wanted at the bakery twenty feet south of the southeast corner of the kitchen.  We learned that during cold weather Grandma baked in a kitchen range like ours, but that using the outdoor bakery during hot weather helped keep the house cool.

The oven was made of brick and shaped like an arched tunnel, three feet wide and four feet long, front to back.  There was an iron door at the front.  A stove pipe at mid-height of the back end had dampers so that the smoke could be directed into a chimney or into the back room where meat was smoked.  The oven floor was at table height and formed the top of the brick ash pit.

Grandma said, “Lena, roll up two sheets of that old paper for me.  Royal, bring some cobs from the basket.  Ivan, we need four sticks of wood from the cord, but not hickory; that is for smoking meat.  E.W., you may pull on that chain and hook the ring over this spike nail.  That opens the damper to the chimney so the fire can burn.”  Our parents and grandparents believed we should learn how to do things by working with them.

Yes, she really did build the fire inside the oven.  She adjusted the sliding damper in the door to give air to the fire and explained that she would return later and push the fire together, so all the wood would burn.  “When the fire is finished, we can bake,” she said.  “You can play now.  When you hear this hand bell, come and see how we do it.”

We boys were ready for action, but where should we go first?  There were many tempting options—Grandpa’s steam powered sawmill forty rods east of the house, the blacksmith shop, the steam engine and the threshing machine, the spring house, the big red bank barn, the two-story squared log house by the west spring where Grandma lived as a girl and the three-story brick house itself.  We were playing in the barn when we heard the bell.

The oven was built into the north end of the bakery, facing the kitchen.  The roof and brick floor extended five feet beyond it for more protection.  The women now placed the things to be baked on shelves beside the oven.  A small trap door in the oven’s floor was opened and the ashes pushed down into the ash pit.  What looked like a wide wooden boat paddle was now put to use.  They could place two pans of bread, or one pie, on it and push them into the oven, slide them off and nudge each pan into the right spot.  They knew just where the bread should be placed and where a cake or pie would bake the best.  The heat radiating down from the hot walls and arched top of the oven was ideal for baking.

Aunt Edna said, “Let me show you our smokehouse.”  A door at the right and a small passage-way led behind the oven to a 10 x 10 foot room.  The walls and floor were of brick and a shallow pit down the center made a safe place for a wood fire.  Hickory was used for the fine flavor it gave to meat.  Two 3 x 8-inch beams on edge six feet above the pit, had meat hooks from which hams, shoulders, slabs of bacon and stuffed sausage could be hung for smoking after the late fall butchering.  Two hams and some sausage were hung there, very brown and smelling very good.

We were on hand again when the oven was opened.  The mingled odors of hot, freshly baked bread, pies and cakes were something for a child to remember.  So was our afternoon snack, enjoyed that day, in the cool summer dining room.  Each had a slice of that bread, just out of the oven, with butter and applebutter on it, plus a glass of cool whole milk, all produced on that farm.  To paraphrase a popular song, “Thank God, I was a country boy.”