Historic Oven coming to Fort St. Joseph
By Jeralyn Bohms
Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site is adding a mouth-watering new component to our heritage programming. This summer, a traditional outdoor bake-oven is being constructed, which will allow us to bring a taste of the 1800s to life!
For the British soldiers stationed at Fort St. Joseph in the years before the War of 1812, the military bake house, with its massive wood-fired oven, was a focal point of daily life. The bake house was one of the first essential buildings constructed at Fort St. Joseph, finished in 1799. Soldiers’ rations consisted of salt pork, dried peas, rice and butter, in addition to one pound of flour per day. So you can imagine how welcome it was to have that flour turned into a fresh loaf of bread! Not only was the bake house used for cooking hot meals on those cold winter days, but it served as a social gathering place. Artifacts such as sewing needles, military buttons, pipe stems, and glass bottle fragments discovered in the remains of the building show that soldiers gathered there before the cozy fire to repair their uniforms, smoke a pipe, or maybe enjoy a nightcap with their compatriots.
Unfortunately for the residents of the fort, one January night in 1802, a fire destroyed the bake house, and threatened the nearby blockhouse and temporary powder magazine. The bake-oven itself survived the fire, though not unscathed, and a temporary shed was erected over it. For the next year and a half, there were many complaints about the bread being produced by that oven, some even calling the results unpalatable and unwholesome. By August 1804, a new bake house and oven were built, this time outside the fort palisade and near the south shore.
This summer, a historic bake-oven is returning to the fort. Site staff are working to construct a cobb oven (made of clay, sand and straw mixed together) with a roof structure to protect it from the elements. In the two centuries since the initial construction of the ovens at Fort St. Joseph, time has taken its toll and little remains to tell us exactly what the original ovens at the fort looked like. Fortunately, cobb and brick ovens were common throughout Europe and Canada in the 19th century, and those historic ovens have provided the necessary information to guide the construction of our bake-oven.
Last summer we began a journey in historic bread baking, using a large cast iron kettle to create an “oven” with an open fire (see photo). Visitors got to experience baking leavened bread in an era before the invention of modern commercial yeast, seeing, smelling, and savouring the results for themselves. With the construction of a bake-oven, our programming opportunities will certainly expand, and ideas are already being developed. We look forward to cooking up lots of tasty goodies and sharing more stories about the people who lived at Fort St. Joseph. Someday soon, visitors may even get a first-hand opportunity to bake their own loaf of bread!