Chillicothe, Mo., home to a slice of history
Dave Hoekstra Dhoekstra@suntimes.com October 26, 2012 2:40PM
IF YOU GO
The annual Chillicothe Holiday Bazaar runs featuring local arts and crafts from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Nov. 17 at Chillicothe High School, 2801 Hornet Rd. Catch a glimpse of small town Americana with the two-hour holiday parade that kicks off at 10 a.m. Nov. 17 and rolls through downtown Chillicothe. Visit www.visitchillcothe.com.
A must when visiting “The Home of Sliced Bread”: stop for a 99 cent banana pecan streusel muffin at Francine’s Pasty Parlor, a block and a half from downtown at 1007 Bryan St. Call (660) 646-3333.
Updated: November 29, 2012 6:06AM
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — When I-70 was built in 1956, that spelled toast for Chillicothe, Mo., the city known as “The Home of Sliced Bread.”
America’s first interstate project connected Kansas City, Mo., with St. Louis. Chillicothe (pop. 9,500) is at the intersection of smaller Highways 36 and 65, about 245 miles northwest of St. Louis and two hours from the Illinois state line. Chillicothe was bypassed.
Chillicothe is back on the map because of a recent initiative, “Missouri Highway 36: The Way of American Genius.” The refurbished four-lane highway connects small-town landmarks such as Walt Disney’s childhood home in Marceline, Mo., St. Joseph, Mo., where a newspaper editor conjured up the idea of Aunt Jemima, and last but not yeast, “The Home of Sliced Bread.”
A marker commemorates the original bakery, now an electrical supply business at 100 Elm Street in downtown Chillicothe. There’s also a sliced bread mural done by local artist Kelly Poling at 709 Washington Street (Highway 65). A bread-baking contest takes place every summer. The Kansas City, Mo. PBS affiliate is working on a sliced bread documentary that will air next spring.
“A museum is a few years down the line,” said Amy Supple, director of the Greater Chillicothe Visitors Region, during a lunchtime interview. Chillicothe’s place in sliced bread history is a recent discovery, Supple said. On July 7, 1928, M.F. “Frank” Bench of the Chillicothe Baking Co. became the first baker in the world to sell sliced bread. His bakery increased bread sales by 2,000 percent in weeks. Homemakers were baking their own bread, but pre-sliced bread was a huge convenience. Within 14 months of his machine’s debut in Chillicothe, its inventor, Otto Rohwedder, took orders for more than 260 machines across America.
“About five years ago, a local reporter was doing research for a book on the town’s history and she ran across the story in the newspaper,” she said. “We talked to the inventor’s son [Richard Rohwedder], who lived in Arkansas. He has since passed on, but he made a trip to Chillicothe and recalled what it was like when he was a 12-year-old boy.”
Agriculture is the largest industry around Chillicothe, according to Supple.
“At one time we were known as ‘The Glove Capitol of the World’,” she said. “We had two major industrial and gardending glove companies. Midwest Gloves and Gear is still here. We’ve been working on Highway 36 for years, but it’s just come to fruition the last year in a major way. There’s Jesse James history on the west end of Highway 36 in St. Joe and Mark Twain in Hannibal on the east.
“There’s so many ‘genius’ ideas along the way. One community, Macon (about 50 miles east of Chillicothe), said, “We’re sorry but we don’t have a genius.’ They researched the heck out of it and did discover that’s where the rotary phone was invented. So they [have] a genius in their own right,” said Supple.
Supple is helping plan the inaugural Sliced Bread Jam, which will be held on June 15, 2013 in Chillicothe. The event will sandwich the bread-baking contest with a bluegrass music festival.
Supple admits that sliced bread fanatics in Michigan and Iowa have come forth to stake their claim as “The Home of Sliced Bread.” In 1933, Rohwedder began manufacturing his sliced bread machine in Bettendorf, Iowa, near his hometown of Davenport. He lived in Albion, Mich., before his death in 1960.
“They can have their say, but we have indisputable proof this was the first place sliced bread was commercially made and produced,” Supplesaid. “We have people here with oral histories. One gentleman was so happy it was invented because until then, his sandwiches were always crooked. His mom was a horrible slicer.”
The saying, “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” came about in World War II, Supple said.
“Bread was rationed. There was no more sliced bread. There was an outcry from housewives saying they would not give up sliced bread. So the order was rescinded,” she said.
On the flipside, Tom Marcucci is vice-president of sales at Chicago’s Gonnella Baking Co., established in 1886.
“For the past 40 years, every time somebody said, ‘That’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,’ my retort, pre-loaded and ready to go, is, ‘What’s so good about sliced bread?’” Marcucci said.
Gonnella does not produce sliced bread, except for one item, its Italian Sliced bread.
“We believe bread is better made the old-fashioned way,” Marcucci said. “We bake our bread on a hearth. We allow the consumer to slice it. Clearly it’s something the consumer likes. It’s a convenience if you’re making sandwiches at home for the kids.”
Ed Douglas, a k a “Sliced Ed,” is a financial planner and the driving volunteer force behind the Chillicothe sliced bread effort.
“You know bread was just in loaves in the early 1900s,” Douglas said during a conversation in front of the mural. “About 1915, Otto’s prototypes burned up. His doctor also said he had one year to live and to get everything in order. He didn’t take that advice and started over. He traveled the country and talked to bakers and housewives. They were concerned about freshness if you slice bread.”
Indeed, said Marcucci, “Once you cut it, the bread starts to lose moisture. Each slice has a full surface on each side. The crust isn’t there to hold in the moisture. It was a real concern, but that was addressed by the ability to package the bread tightly, which followed the invention of the slicer.”
Bench (the baker) knew Rohwedder. He gave the 5-feet-long, 3-feet-high slicing machine a spin because his bakery wasn’t doing well.
“This is the standard of all innovation, past, present and future,” Douglas said. “Nobody says, ‘This is the greatest thing since the iPod.’ We had the first bakery in the world to offer sliced bread. … Our museum won’t only be about sliced bread, but all innovations.
“All we need is the dough.”