Fort Vancouver
Historic Furnishings Report: Bakery
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General description of bakery

The physical structure of the 1844 bakery has been treated in considerable detail in the Historic Structures Report, Historical Data, Fort Vancouver, vol. I. Since the dimensions and general arrangement of the rooms, together with such matters as the locations of doors and windows, must necessarily influence the furnishings, however, a brief description of the building is provided here as a matter of convenience. Also, the availability of the final report covering archeological excavations at the bakery site permits certain facts to be stated with more assurance than could be done previously.

The main bakery structure was about 40 feet by 25 feet, with the long walls running north and south. It stood half within the east stockade line and half without, the pickets butting against the short north and south walls at their midway points. The building was a story and a half high with a simple gabled roof. The ridge line paralleled the long walls. Available pictures seem to show the eaves at about the same level as the tops of the pickets, but the height of the stockade at the times of the pictures is not known with certainty. [1] It is not likely that the tops of the walls were more than 13 to 14 feet above the ground.

Enough footings were uncovered during archeological excavations to demonstrate that the main bakery building was constructed in the usual Canadian or Hudson's Bay style, with heavy upright grooved posts set at intervals of approximately 10 feet along massive sills, the spaces, between the posts being filled with horizontal squared timbers to complete the walls. The footings, also spaced about 10 feet apart, were blocks of wood averaging about 2-3/4 feet long, 1 foot wide, and 3 inches thick. It could not be determined whether these footings were originally placed on the contemporary ground surface or sunk below it. Since no traces of a packed earth, stone, brick, or tile floor were found, it is highly probable that the bakery had a wood floor. [2]

Concentrations of glass fragments in the western portion of the bakery and outside the west wall appear to indicate the presence of several windows on that side of the structure. Shutter latch nails hint that the windows were shuttered. The archeologists theorized that there was a doorway in the west wall with a pathway leading to two outhouses directly north of the bakery. If the sills were raised even slightly off the ground, there probably was at least one step in front of the door.

Contemporary pictures of the bakery show a window in the north gable wall. It can be assumed, therefore, that there was a garret or attic which was intended for use. In keeping with usual Company building practices and in accordance with pictorial evidence as to the height of the walls, it is virtually certain that the sides of this attic for three or four feet above its floor were formed by the continuations of the bakery walls for that distance above the ceiling of the ground floor. The rafters and roof would have formed the attic ceiling above the tops of those walls.

Adjoining the main bakery structure on the east was a wooden shed which sheltered the bake ovens. The generally accurate Vavasour plan of 1845 (see Plate VII, Historic Structures Report, vol. I) shows this appendage as measuring about 25 feet by 15 feet, but archeological excavations have demonstrated that these were the dimensions of the ovens alone. As a precaution against fire the covering shed almost certainly must have stood clear of the oven sides by at least a short distance. Therefore this shed very probably measured about 28 feet by about 16-1/2 feet on the outside. Seemingly it had no exterior doors or windows. No traces of this shed were found by the archeologists. Thus its method of construction and exact dimensions must remain in doubt. Very probably its exterior walls were composed of heavy vertical planks or slabs nailed to a substantial frame. It almost certainly had no floor other than the ground, since most of its interior was occupied by the ovens.

Except for a few inches on each side of the oven complex, the west end of the shed undoubtedly was entirely open to the main bakery. Probably the whole width of this opening was filled by the brick face of the oven complex which appears to have been directly on the line of the main bakery's east wall. From the face of the ovens two chimneys rose to about the height of the roof ridge. [3]

Description of ovens

The historical record provides little evidence concerning the design of the 1844 bakery ovens at Fort Vancouver. On September 17 of that year Clerk Thomas Lowe at Fort Vancouver noted in his journal the arrival of a barge from the vicinity of the present Oregon City with 5,000 bricks on board. These bricks almost certainly were intended for the ovens in the bakery then under construction, for on October 15 Lowe recorded, "The New Bake House is also nearly completed." [4]

The inventory of "New Stores" made at the Fort Vancouver Depot in the spring of 1845 listed "450/1000 M Tiles p Ovens." [5] Thus it would appear that tiles were also used in the fabric of the ovens as was frequently the practice at bakeries generally in the mid-nineteenth century, but whether 450 indicates the number of tiles to be used to line the ovens or merely the remainder after the ovens had been completed is not evident.

Dr. H. A. Tuzo, who reached Fort Vancouver in November, 1853, to take up his duties as physician, recalled that the bakery contained two "superior fire-brick ovens." It could, he said, bake for from 200 to 300 men. [6]

Archeological excavations have thrown a bit more light on the picture. During the winter of 1970-1971 two widely separated fragments of the bakery oven foundations were uncovered, one section of the north wall and a larger segment at the southeast corner of the oven complex. Upon final analysis of these findings, the archeologists estimated that the original complete foundations bounded a rectangle "in excess of 25.0 feet north-south and more that 15.0 feet east west." [7]

The foundation remmants were from 1.6 to 2.0 feet wide. The were formed of "rounded cobbles averaging about 0.7 foot in diameter." They were laid in a single course without sub-footings. "Lime mortar, possibly of Hawaiian coral, was present on top and in between the cobbles but not underneath." The oven foundations were at the same ground level as the wooden footings of the main bakery structure. [8]

No bricks were found in situ in the bakery area, nor were any complete bricks recovered; but brick fragments were scattered about in relative abundance. Based upon composition and relative hardness, these fragments seem to fall into nine types or classes of brick. One of the types most abundantly represented appears to correspond to bricks 8-1/2" x 4" x 2-1/2" excavated at Fort Vancouver during the late 1940's or early 1950's. Since these dimensions are the same as those established by statute for bricks made in England, the archeologists have speculated that bricks of this class were imported by the annual supply ships from London. The most abundantly represented type of brick had rather similar dimensions — 1-3/4" and 2-1/4" thick, 3-3/4" or 4-1/4" wide, with length unknown. The origin of these bricks is not known, but they could have been from the Willamette Valley, where bricks seem to have been made on a small scale at least as early as 1341. [9]

The archeological evidence thus confirms the historical record to the effect that the main structure of the ovens was of brick. As far as yet reported, no tile fragments were found at the bakery site. [10]

Operation of the bakery

No records thus far examined provide a clear picture of the bakery in operation. Neither the range of products turned out there nor the quantity of any one product is known with certainty. As shall be evident in sources cited in this section, contemporary documents speak of both "bread" and "biscuit" being baked at Fort Vancouver; but as will also be clearly seen, these terms were often synonymous, at least to the extent that "bread" often meant "biscuit," Thus when an account book records a charge for baking a stated quantity of flour into "bread," one cannot always be sure whether loaves of bread or "hard bread" (biscuits) were meant. Almost always it was the latter.

Yet it appears almost certain that at least some loaf bread was produced by the Fort Vancouver bakery. Such at least is the implication of the words of Samuel Parker, who visited the post in 1835. "There is a bakery here," he noted in his journal, "in which two or three men are in constant employment, which furnishes bread for daily use in the fort, and also a large supply of sea biscuit for the shipping and trading stations along the north-west coast." [11] References to such items as "dough cutters" and "yeast Tubs" in inventories of the bakehouse furnishings also tend to point in this direction, although. as shall be seen certain formulas for biscuit-making also called for the use of "leaven" or yeast.

Lest there be any question on the subject, however, it should be made clear at this point that loaf bread was regularly produced at Fort Vancouver. In 1837 Miss Anna Maria Pittman, a member of the Methodist mission in the Willamette Valley, spoke of "bread and butter" as being among the foods, "all of their own make, and excellent too," which she enjoyed while a guest at the Company's depot on the Columbia. [12] A year later the post chaplain, the Reverend Herbert Beaver bitterly commented that wheat and other grains were frequently so poorly cared for at Fort Vancouver that they became "from dirt almost unfit for use, as our bread at sundry times has testified." [13] But such bread, perhaps turned out mainly for the "gentlemen's" mess table in the Big House and for other specially qualified residents within the stockade, could have been baked in the post kitchen rather than in the bakery.

Beyond any doubt, however, the main business of the Fort Vancouver bakery was turning out biscuit of the variety known today as "hard-tack." In 1838 the weekly ration of the ordinary workman at the depot included three pounds of "Bread or Potatoes." [14] That "Bread" in this instance meant biscuit is shown by the fact that after August, 1841, when a change was made in the food allowance, the "usual ration p. day" included "1-1/2 lbs. Biscuit," though when potatoes were available the men each received one bushel of them a week in place of the biscuit. [15]

Even if providing this daily ration of biscuit to the laboring force at Fort Vancouver had been the only function of the bakery, the bakers would have been kept busy. The number of "servants" at the depot fluctuated constantly during the year as the brigades and various types of work parties arrived and departed. In 1843 Chief Factor McLoughlin admitted to having had 149 men on his list during the previous winter, but he told the London directors that after the departure of all the field parties during the spring and summer "we find ourselves weak." [16]

For Outfit 1845 the Fort Vancouver roll for the depot, sale shop, Indian trade, and general charges, excluding officers and clerks, numbered 249 men. [17] Of course, not all of these servants were actually stationed at Fort Vancouver even during the winter, and many others were away for long periods. Nevertheless, it can be seen that Dr. Tuzo's testimony that the fort's ovens could bake for from 200 to 300 men was not too much of an exaggeration even if he was referring only to baking for the depot staff.

But the Fort Vancouver bakery provided biscuit for a far larger clientel than the laboring force on the lower Columbia. It is known that certain posts, such as Fort Colvile, had bake ovens of their own, so how far the depot went in furnishing bakery products to the scattered interior and Northwest Coast forts is not known. Records thus far examined do not appear to provide much information on this subject. The bake ovens at Lower Fort Carry in the present Manitoba regularly turned out "biscuit for exportation" to other posts, however, and it is most probable that Fort Vancouver did likewise. [18]

That something of the sort took place seems indicated by an item in the Fort Vancouver accounts for Outfit 1848. The Columbia District billed the Honolulu agency $63.25 for "Baking 23 bbls Flour into bread" and $38.55 for seven casks for the same. [19]

The records are much clearer when it comes to demonstrating that Fort Vancouver produced much of the biscuit required for the Company's shipping in the Pacific. During Outfit 1843, for instance, the barque Columbia was charged for two hundredweight "fine Biscuit" and sixteen hundredweight of common biscuit taken aboard at Vancouver. When preparing for her homeward voyage to England during the same year the barque Vancouver was supplied with 40 hundredweight of common and eight hundredweight of fine biscuit. [20]

In any event, it is abundantly clear that there was sufficient business to justify the statement of former clerk George B. Roberts who years later recalled that four bakers were employed at Fort Vancouver. [21] The bakery process of the 1840's, as shall be developed in the next chapter of this report, required an ample supply of labor.

When the new bakery was completed during the fall of 1844 the only baker listed as such on the Fort Vancouver employee rolls was Joseph Pétrain. He continued to hold this position during Outfit 1845 (mid-1845 to mid-1846), the period of immediate interest for purposes of reconstruction and refurnishing.

Pétrain, whose name was sometimes written as Pétraint or Pétrin, was a young French Canadian from Sorel Parish, Saint David, District of Montreal. He reached Fort Vancouver on November 4, 1837, as a lad of seventeen, enrolled in the Company's service as a middleman (ordinary voyageur). By Outfit 1842 he was still a middleman at the same rate of £17 per year, but for the next outfit he was listed as "Middle & Baker" at £20 per annum. From this fact it is evident that he was acting as an assistant to Bazil Poirer, who had long been depot baker. Poirer died on or about June 30, 1844, and Pétrain succeeded him as chief of the depot bakery. [22] Undoubtedly he was assigned two or three men as assistants, though the employee rolls do not reflect this fact.

As will become evident during the discussion of the baking process in the next chapter, it is highly probable that at least one employee actually lived in the bakery. It was generally considered expedient to keep the ovens warm on a round-the-clock basis, since it took a large amount of fuel to heat them once they had cooled. Also, if ordinary loaf bread was made in large quantities, the process involved considerable work in the very early morning or at other unusual hours.

If this live-in employee was Pétrain — there seems to be no proof that it was, and there is reason to believe it was not — certain information is available which would be of assistance to those planning the refurnishing of the bakery. On April 19, 1843, at the Catholic mission at Fort Vancouver, Pétrain was married by Father F. N. Blanchet to Marie Anne Wagner, the 14-year-old daughter of Peter Wagner, once the depot butcher but since the end of 1844 retired to a farm on the Tualatin Plains, and his Chinook wife, Marie. Joseph and Marie Anne's first child, a daughter, was born at Vancouver on March 4, 1844, but she lived only a little more than a month. A second child, Joseph, came into the world on June 10, 1845, but he died about seven months later, on January 14, 1846. A third child, Joseph Ovide, was born on November 19, 1846. Marie Anne died on December 20, 1847, and her only living child, Joseph Ovide, followed her to the grave about two weeks later. [23]

Whatever the output and whatever the strength of the bakery crew, it is clear that the demands made upon the bakery exceeded what could be produced, both as to quantity and quality. As early as 1842 complaints had reached the Governor and Committee in London concerning the "bad quality of the Bread and the unsound state of the Salted Meat" provided at Fort Vancouver for use in the Company's vessels. "From the specimens we saw of the Bread and Meat," the directors told Chief Factor McLoughlin, "we think [these complaints] were well founded." To correct the situation as far as the bread was concerned, they announced, "we shall endeavour to send by the next ship a good Biscuit Baker." [24]

At about this same time the Russian American Company placed an order with the Hudson's Bay Company through Pelly, Simpson & Co., its London agent, for 86 hundredweight of "White Biscuit" to be "manufactured" at Fort Vancouver and shipped to Sitka during the spring or summer of 1844. When relaying this order to McLoughlin on December 21, 1842, the Governor and Committee added some remarks which throw light upon the baking practices of the day:

Although described "White Biscuit," we presume from the quantity required it must be what is known in England as second Biscuit: the last prices here were 33 s. p. Cwt. for white 21 s for second and 15/9 for third or ship Biscuit, independent of the cost of the packages; samples of which are herewith. [25]

The remarks of the directors concerning the quality of the biscuit produced under his charge and the instructions concerning the Russian order reached McLoughlin at a time when he was much troubled by personal and administrative problems. He undoubtedly was not cheered by word received during the fall of 1843 from Governor A. Etoline of the Russian American Company that a sample of the biscuit baked at Fort Vancouver had been obtained from a Hudson's Bay Company vessel. "I find," said that official, "we can bake similar to it at Sitka, and we do not require such from Vancouver, — but if you can bake Biscuit of the same quality as the sample now sent, I will be happy to take 50 cwt. at 30/ - Stg. per cwt." [26]

On November 15, 1843, McLoughlin somewhat resignedly replied to the London directors. Concerning the complaints about the "Bread," he wrote, "our Baker does not understand Biscuit baking." As for the samples sent from Sir John Henry Pelly for the Russian order, he merely remarked, "I am sorry to say, our baker cannot make such Biscuit, and Governor Etholine requests, if we can send no better than our Baker makes that we send him none, as he can make as good at Sitka." [27]

When in the course of time the London directors considered these remarks, they resolved once more to send a "biscuit baker" by the next ship to the Columbia. McLoughlin was informed of the decision by a letter dated November 30, 1844, but as far as can be determined from records searched, no more action was taken than had been the case with the similar resolve two years earlier. [28]

During early 1844 McLoughlin was asked if he would consider taking a contract to supply the U. S. Naval Agent in Honolulu with 4,000 barrels of biscuit along with substantial quantities of flour and beef. The head of the Columbia District was forced to reply that he could not undertake such a commitment due to the difficulty of obtaining labor. [29]

Perhaps it was situations such as these which caused McLoughlin to erect the new bakery in 1844. Unfortunately no records have yet been found which permit one to judge whether any significant improvement in the product resulted from the new facility.

Furnishings of the bakery

The annual inventories of Company-owned property at Fort Vancouver provide a reasonably good picture of the bakery equipment. Since the lists varied somewhat from year to year, it seems desirable to reproduce those from several inventories centering about the 1845-1846 period under consideration.

Under the heading "Articles in Use," the Fort Vancouver inventory made during the spring of 1344 contains the following list of items in the "Bake House":

1 round head Axe
1 water Bucket
1 Candlestick
2 dough Cutters
1 tin Kettle 8 gns.
2 tin Pots
1 tin scales
2 Biscuit Stamp[s]
1 Steelyards 100 lbs.
3 lead Weights [30]

The inventory of 1845 listed practically the same articles but there were a few interesting variations:

1 Axe
2 Buckets
1 Candlestick
3 pln [plain] Blankets 2-1/2 pts [points]
1 dough Cutter
1 Tin Kettle 8 gns
1 Tin Pot 3 qts
1 pr Tin Scales
1 Biscuit Stamp
1 lead Weight
1 pr Steelyards [31]

No listing of articles in use in the bakery seems to be available for 1846, but the Fort Vancouver Depot inventory made in the spring of 1847 lists the following articles in the "Bake House":

2 Axes
6 Buckets
1 Candlestick
2 dough Cutters
2 Tin Kettles 8 gns.
3 Tin Pots
1 pr. Tin Scales
4 Biscuit Stamps
1 pr. Steelyards
1 lead Weights [sic]
18 Yds duck Sheeting
1 [illegible]
1 hand saw
3 Tables
2 Tin Pans [32]

The list in the 1848 inventory is somewhat more extensive:

-- Bakehouse --

2 large square headed Axes
1 iron weighing Beam & tin Scales
5 plain Blankets 3 points
2 water Buckets
1 tin Candlestick
2 duck sheeting table Cloths — 42 yds.
2 dough Cutters
1 Hammer
2 tin Kettles
2 tin Pans
1 jack Plane
2 tin pint Pots
1 hand Saw
1 iron Shovel
3 biscuit Stamps
1 pr beam Steelyards, to weigh 110 lbs
1 pr beam Steelyards, to weigh 1400 lbs
1 Canada single Stove 3 ft
3 Tables
2 yeast Tubs [33]

Analysis of the specific data

Although the material presented above requires little explanation, there are several points which might be made clearer by summary and additional interpretation:

1. Ground plan. Upon the basis of contemporary views and plans and upon the results of archeological excavations, the outline of the ground floor of the bakery must have been about as shown in Figure 1. It will be observed that despite the fairly ample dimensions of the main structure the room layout left no space for living quarters on the lower level.

2. Living Quarters. If it is decided to furnish a portion of the bakery as living quarters, the only persons who would seem to have been eligible to occupy the building are the post baker and/or one or two of his assistants. The identities of the assistants are not known with certainty for the 1845-1846 period, but there is a fair amount of information available concerning the baker himself, Joseph Pétrain. Unfortunately, it appears that Pétrain probably lived outside the pickets.

foundation plan
Figure 1. Foundation plan, 1844 Bakery. The dimensions of the shed are hypothetical, since no traces of it were found during archeological excavations. They have been enlarged slightly over those shown on the Vavasour plan of 1845 to permit the shed walls to stand clear of the ovens. Such a precautionary step against fire would seem logical.

But if the bakery is to be refurnished to the period of Outfit 1845, if the quarters of the baker or bakers are to be exhibited, and if it is assumed that Pétrain may have been in residence there during times of particularly heavy work, those quarters might reflect occupancy by a French Canadian engage; his part Indian, teen-age wife; and, for the brief span from June 10, 1845, to January 14, 1846, a new-born girl. Unlike most of his fellow laborers, Joseph Pétrain could write. [34] In view of the fact that in later life several years after he left the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company in late 1848 or early 1849, he served as probate judge of Clark County, Washington, it would appear appropriate to have reading materials among the articles in his quarters.

3. Bakery furnishings. The bakery inventories show variations from year to year, and the discrepancies are difficult to explain. If, for instance, blankets were necessary to the operation of the bakery, why do they appear in the lists for certain years but not for others? For certain years the lists are quite short, while for others they seem more detailed. Does this mean that there were actually more items in use at some times than at others or merely that certain clerks were more conscientious in their work than others? No sure answers can be given, but in view of the technology employed and the quantity of bakery goods produced the inclination of the present writer is toward accepting the longest and most detailed list, that for 1848, as the basic document in equipment planning.

In the following chapters of this report it will be brought out that certain items were virtually essential for the operation of a mid-19th century bakery. But, as was the case with the inventories of armament in the bastion, several such vital articles do not appear in any of the bakehouse inventories. For example, no mention is made of peels, the long wooden paddles used to put bread and biscuit into the ovens for baking and to take them out again. Nor are the various rakes and swabs used to clean the ovens listed.

It must be assumed that such items were present but that for some reason they were not inventoried. The most plausible explanation for the omissions seems to be that part of the bakery equipment consisted of "county-made articles" (those made locally and not imported) which were not always carried on the Company's books. Of course such items as tables and yeast tubs undoubtedly were also fabricated at Fort Vancouver, and why they should have been inventoried but not peels is not readily apparent. At any rate, when planning to refurnish the bakery, the extant inventories must be supplemented by lists of equipment derived from other sources.

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Last Updated: 28-Nov-2005