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Home News and Features The Common Cracker: A Montpelier Staple
The Common Cracker: A Montpelier Staple
By George Edson A new exhibit at the Vermont History Museum in the Pavilion building tells the story of the common cracker. The Cross common cracker was made in Montpelier for over 130 years and was a popular early American food item found in nearly every 19th century kitchen pantry. The common crackers kept well for months without refrigeration and were used in meal preparation. Sold for seven cents per pound, they were the least expensive of all crackers. Disk-shaped, two-inches in diameter, and nearly one-half-inch thick at center, they resembled an oyster cracker on steroids. Despite being very dry and tasteless, many people liked them. With the right preparation they were made palatable. By applying a little finger pressure to the cracker’s midsection, they easily split into concave halves. The halves were often buttered and toasted, sometimes topped with a chunk of cheddar cheese. Today they often serve as a base for hors d’oeuvres.Many old-timers remember their folks talking of “crackers and milk,” a Sunday night tradition among many households up through the mid-1900s. A family might attend church Sunday morning and have a big Sunday meal at 1 p.m. Later, common crackers were broken into a bowl with milk poured over them for the family evening repast. Timothy Cross was the first Vermont baker to manufacture machine-made crackers. In 1847 he opened a new steam bakery in Montpelier. Charles H. Cross, Timothy’s younger brother, purchased the business in 1852, and it was said he made crackers one day using his horse to power the revolving oven; the following day the horse pulled the cracker wagon around town. Cross was ingenious, resourceful, and successful. In 1862 Charles H. Cross’s son, L. Bart Cross, joined his father in business. C.H. Cross & Son’s Montpelier Crackers were frequently advertised as “The World’s Best.” Timothy and Charles operated their bakery in the old Masons Hall at the corner of Main and School streets where Bethany Church is now. In 1863 Bethany wanted to build a new church, so the Crosses moved down the street to 101 Main Street, where the City Center building is now. In 1908 the business was acquired by George L. Edson, grandfather of the author of this article. Upon his death in 1942, his son, G. Landale Edson, took control of the area’s last common cracker bakery. In 1966 the business relocated to Claremont, N.H. and closed its doors 14 years later. Louise Andrews Kent, a well-known and popular author from Calais, wrote the following in her book, “Mrs. Appleyard’s Kitchen.” “There is a story told in Montpelier that a big baking company in the West once hired away the baker from the Montpelier firm that made the crackers, offered him a large salary, and provided him with everything that he asked for: the specially ground flour, the soapstone ovens, everything that was part of his secret. But the first batch of crackers was a failure, and so was the second, and so on. They had everything. The money, the secret rule, the baker, the ovens, everything but the Vermont water. Water for Montpelier crackers, it seems, has to run out of those special hills. Out of special clouds, too, perhaps. Snow and hail and sleet and thunder all have their part in it. Maple trees, too, that are powdery gilt in the spring and hot gold in the fall hold it around their roots, and it trickles under the roots of pasture apple trees loaded with pink drifts of blossom, and under pointed firs like church steeples when the snow is on them. It filters through limestone and around granite boulders and slate. It chuckles in brooks where there are trout, and quietly washes a bank where there are freshwater clams with pearls in them, and tells no one about them.” See the Common Cracker exhibit at the Local History Gallery at the Vermont History Museum at the Pavilion through January 2023. George Edson, grandson of the George Edson mentioned in the article, was a key person involved with the revitalization of the Montpelier Historical Society, and — as he tells the story — as his penalty, they elected him chairperson. Edson, along with former cracker baker Bob Mills, produced the current cracker exhibit at the Vermont History Museum.