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Food Heritage and Historic Mansions
Wednesday, September 10, 2014

By Nelson Price

In a celebration of the Hoosier state’s food heritage, the Society of Indiana Pioneers traveled to sites involved with culinary production during the Fall Pilgrimage, which also featured visits to historic mansions in far-eastern Indiana. Some of the sites the group toured – including the factory of Wick’s Pies, the world’s largest maker of sugar cream pies – are multi-generational, family-owned Hoosier businesses.

About 33 travelers embarked on a Wednesday trip from pickup sites in Indianapolis on September 10. Despite ominous forecasts of thunderstorms, including hail in some parts of the state, the Pioneers enjoyed pleasant weather and never even needed to use umbrellas during the day, which featured insightful, engaging step-on guides (as well as scrumptious food) at the various destinations.

The first destination was Wick’s Pies in the Randolph County town of Winchester. Owned by the Wickersham family, the factory uses a recipe for sugar cream pie (which is being marketed as Indiana’s official state pie) that dates to a 19th-century family farm kitchen. The Pioneers divided into small groups to tour the factory, which makes seven kinds of pies, including pumpkin and pecan, although no fruit pies. Wick’s produces about 12 million pies and pie shells in a typical year.

Food historians trace the origins of sugar cream pie to farms where it could be made with staples (flour, sugar, cream) that were available year-round in Indiana, unlike fruit pies, which were seasonal. Wick’s delivers sugar cream pies to more than 25 states. Although tasting of samples is not permitted in the factory, many Pioneers purchased pies to take home (or ordered slices to savor on the spot) at Mrs. Wick’s, a restaurant near the factory. Subgroups of Pioneers rotated between touring the factory (which has conveyor belts and a massive storage freezer) and patronizing the restaurant.

The next destination was the city of Richmond, which is reclaiming its significant role in jazz recording history during the 1920s and early ‘30s. Richmond’s largest employer then was the Starr Piano Factory owned by Henry Gennett, who founded a studio and independent label that gained national renown. It’s where Louis Armstrong, Indiana native Hoagy Carmichael, Gene Autry, and other notable entertainers recorded their early music.

On E. Main Street, the Pioneers toured the Gennett Mansion, a Colonial Revival-style residence built in 1897. The massive home, which has 9,400 square feet and eight original fireplaces, has been restored in recent years. The owner, Bob Geddes, led groups of the Pioneers on tours of the ornate mansion; it’s now used for special events ranging from civic and cultural affairs to family reunions.

While some groups of Pioneers toured the Gennett Mansion, others enjoyed a catered buffet luncheon in the conservatory of the three-story home. The groups rotated so that everyone had a chance to savor the sumptuous luncheon, tour the mansion, and admire its stunning woodwork and furnishings, including a baby grand piano made by the Starr factory. Although the Gennett Mansion has been saved and beautifully restored, several nearby historic mansions in Richmond have been demolished during the last 70 years.

The next destination was a different kind of historic mansion: a lavish farmhouse. Built in 1876, the Garr Mansion and Farm – which, like the Gennett Mansion, is on the National Register of Historic Places – once was the home of Bavarian immigrant Jonas Garr, the founder of the country’s largest maker of threshing machines. A descendant of the Garr family welcomed the Pioneers at the mansion, now a farmhouse museum.

Almost all its furnishings are original, including many acquired at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. The Garr family became related by marriage to the Hills, who enjoyed tremendous success in cultivating roses and accounted for Richmond’s reputation during the 20th Century as the “rose capital” of the country. (At one point, 40 acres of greenhouses for roses were located near Richmond.)

Then, it was time to visit another Hoosier food business. The Pioneers traveled to Hagerstown to tour Abbott’s Candy, founded in 1890 by William Clay (“W.C.”) Abbott. Until 2012, the business – known for its caramels and other treats – was owned by Abbott family members.

Although candy production had ended for the day, many Pioneers toured the factory and its kitchen at the invitation of the current owners, Jay Noel and his sons; they explained how the candies are made. Other Pioneers shopped in Abbott’s store, purchasing everything from the famous caramels to homemade cookies. The store is decorated with vintage photos from the business’ history of more than 120 years in the community.

From Hagerstown, the Pioneers’ motor coach traveled to U.S. 40 (Old National Road) and took the roadway, which was integral to early Indiana settlement, to Cambridge City. The group disembarked at the Huddleston Farmhouse, the historic residence that was a stop on the Old National Road beginning in the early 1840s for pioneers who were traveling westward. The historic farmhouse has been restored by its owner, Indiana Landmarks, the statewide preservation organization.

Inside the barn on the Huddleston farm, Pioneers gathered to listen to a presentation about the history of the Huddleston Farmhouse – and the heritage of the Old National Road – from Joe Frost, a Landmarks staff member and director of the Indiana National Road Association. He explained that the Huddlestons were among the many Quaker families who moved to Indiana from North Carolina in the 1830s and ‘40s. Their farmhouse and surrounding property served as a pioneer “rest area” where travelers could clean up, cook, and camp as they headed west.

Inside the farmhouse, Joe Frost did a second presentation, this time focusing on the history of canning and other methods of food preservation. He guided many Pioneers on a tour of the kitchen and its adjacent garden. Other Pioneers enjoyed refreshments in the farmhouse prepared by the same Richmond caterer who had overseen the group’s luncheon at the Gennett Mansion. Suffice it to say no one remained hungry when the group boarded the motor coach to head back to Indianapolis.