Oven a tasty history lesson

Tales of the Colonial-era Mohawk Valley are rife with difficulties faced by settlers in a wild land.

Tales of the Colonial-era Mohawk Valley are rife with difficulties faced by settlers in a wild land.

But with the help of a new addition at the historic landmark Old Fort Johnson, guests are learning colonists were able to ease the pain of rough living through food.

Re-enactor Jim Sparks, a member of the Montgomery County Historical Society, handcrafted a new bread oven from fire bricks and mortar on the homestead of Sir William Johnson last spring. The wood-fired oven is now making its debut.

Sparks — like many members of the society that maintains the 1749 stone home and property where Johnson’s plantation once stood — is well read on 17th and 18th century history. But he’s found one thing lacking: no description of the precise dimensions of the old clay ovens used by settlers.

He modeled the new oven on earlier wood-fired ovens he’s built out of clay, logs and bricks years before. This one is made from modern materials — fire bricks for the base, and the dome-like top is covered with inches of mortar.

In the old days, the skill of oven building and cooking was passed down in families. “A lot of this craft has been lost. … We stopped building them in the 19th century,” Sparks said earlier this month, after demonstrating the oven to a group of about 100 schoolchildren.


The first step in cooking is “getting a roaring fire in there,” several hours before cooking begins, Sparks said. Hardwood works best.

Sparks fired it up, and an electric thermometer showed the temperature inside the oven at between 650 and 750 degrees.

After removing the wood, coals and ash, the oven’s interior is cleaned off with a brush and water and it’s ready for cooking.

There are no temperature controls, so once the oven’s hot, it starts slowly cooling off. That’s where old-style cooking knowledge comes in.

Historical society member and volunteer Lori Rulison said biscuits are the best thing to start with. “Biscuits can take high heat” Rulison said. She believes colonists would start baking biscuits first thing in the morning, because they bake quickly.

Pies and other pastries come next, taking about an hour, she said.

Colonists would take advantage of the oven’s slow cool-down time on Saturday night, Rulison said. Because Sunday was a holy day, “They often didn’t cook on the Sabbath,” she said.

Sunday mornings, they’d wake up to find a slow-cooked pot of baked beans in a warm oven.

History books do share the technique used to determine how hot the oven was prior to thermometers, Rulison said. Bakers would stick an arm into the oven and if they could count to 10 before pulling it out, it was at a good cooking temperature, between 350 and 400 degrees.

One way to tell who worked as a baker back then: They’d have all the hair burned off one of their arms.

Another method, Rulison said, is to toss some flour into the oven. If it turned brown at the count of five, it was at optimal temperature.


In Sir William Johnson’s heyday, much of today’s village of Fort Johnson and beyond was his property, and the hand-laid stone home that remains was a tiny part of the massive plantation that saw hundreds of guests.

According to an old map preserved at the site, Johnson’s estate had its own bake house that appears large enough to fit at least two ovens, Sparks said.

Baking was an important part of life there, helping not only to feed Johnson, but also his help, soldiers garrisoned on the property and, at times, as many as 1,000 Native Americans who would gather there, Sparks said.

Though they braved frigid temperatures, warfare from the French and Indian War and then the Revolutionary War, people in the 17th and 18th centuries had warm delights to enjoy. And many of those baked goods are now being made in the new oven at Old Fort Johnson. These include corn bread, gingerbread, currant and plain biscuits and “slump.”

Rulison said slump is like a cobbler with a soft, cake-like dough on the bottom and topped with fresh fruit.

“It sinks as it cools, that’s why they called it slump,” she said.

Other culinary delights cooked today at Old Fort Johnson include rhubarb tart, brioche — an enriched yeast bread with eggs and butter in it — baguettes and whole wheat bread.

Old Fort Johnson Museum Coordinator Alessa Wylie said the new oven has already become a hit among guests.

“That’s always a big hit if there’s food,” she said.

Historic Old Fort Johnson, at the corner of routes 5 and 67, just west of Amsterdam, is open for tours Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.oldfortjohnson.org.

Categories: Schenectady County

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