There will be a large fruitcake at our table on Christmas day.
Yes, a fruitcake.
Enough already with the fruitcake jokes.
The fruitcakes shipped from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, have been a Christmas tradition in our family for as long as I can remember.
The recipe for this fruitcake was brought to Texas from Wiesbaden, Germany, by a baker named Gus Weidmann in 1896. Weidmann and a business partner, Tom McElwee, built a thriving bakery in Corsicana.
The Collin Street Bakery website tells their story this way: “The shy, perfectionist Gus Weidmann ran his little kitchen in this newly formed Collin Street Bakery and made ready for the busy Christmas seasons. At the same time, Tom McElwee was sending out letters, making sales trips and lining up an ever-growing list of bakery customers. They made a nice team and enjoyed such success that their once anonymous Texas fruitcake and pecan cake became a delicacy to be sought after by folks from every corner of the globe.
“In 1906, after outgrowing the original Collin Street Bakery in its 10th year, Tom and Gus put up a structure of such ambitious size that Tom was able to make its whole second floor into an elite private hotel. Only a flamboyant patron of the Corsicana Opera House could have pulled it off; one like Tom, who was accustomed to attracting the nation’s best performers to this oil and rail center, home of the first two oil strikes west of the Mississippi.
“Interestingly, Mobil and Texaco were both founded here in Corsicana. Tom formed instant friendships with the visiting celebrities and made sure that every guest who boarded the outbound train had an extra cake in his travel trunk. Folks who worked at the bakery back then remembered getting glimpses of Will Rogers, Enrico Caruso, Terrible-Tempered John McGraw and Gentleman Jim Corbett. They remembered the great John Ringling and told of the afternoon when Ringling’s whole circus traipsed over and ordered Christmas cakes for circus friends in every corner of the world. It brought a few nostalgic sighs when Tom McElwee’s glamorous digs were transformed, room by room, into an area of executives and clerks and jangling phones. But prosperity clears its own path. The Collin Street Bakery was getting waist deep in a new and thriving mail-order business.
“Though Tom McElwee and Gus Weidmann died less than a year apart, the management of the Collin Street Bakery passed smoothly into experienced hands. Nothing fundamental in its operation has changed. Cakes are still baked to order and shipped directly from Corsicana.”
Corsicana is 58 miles southeast of Dallas at the junction of Interstate 45, U.S. Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 287. It was established in 1848 to serve as the county seat of Navarro County, a new county named after Texas Revolution hero Jose Antonio Navarro. He suggested that the county seat be named after the island of Corsica, where his parents had been born.
In November 1871, the Houston & Texas Central Railroad came to Corsicana. The Handbook of Texas reports: “The coming of the railroad brought numerous settlers and new merchants, among them the Sanger brothers, the Padgitts and others who established stores near the new depot on East Collin Street. The construction of the Texas & St. Louis Railway (later the Cotton Belt) in 1880 prompted further commercial development, and by the mid-1880s Corsicana had become the leading trading and shipping center for a large area of the northern blacklands.”
Yet another boost to growth came in the 1890s.
“By the early 1890s, the rapidly expanding city had outgrown its water supply, and the following year civic leaders formed the Corsicana Water Development Co. with the aim of tapping a shallow artesian well in the area,” according to The Handbook of Texas. “Drilling began in the spring of 1894, but instead of water, the company hit a large pocket of oil and gas. The find — the first significant discovery of oil west of the Mississippi River — led to Texas’ first oil boom. Within a short time, nearly every lot in the town and in the surrounding area was under lease, and wells were being drilled within the city limits.”
The first oil refinery in the state was built at Corsicana in 1897.
By 1898, there were 287 wells in the Corsicana Field.
J.S. Cullinan founded the Cullinan Oil Co. That became the Magnolia Oil Co. which, in turn, became Mobil.
Another local company, the Texas Co., later became Texaco.
When Gus Weidmann showed up in 1896, he was coming to one of Texas’ wealthiest cities. In fact, Corsicana was among the first cities in Texas to use natural gas for lighting and fuel.
The Collin Street Bakery fruitcakes aren’t the only well-known food product to have started in Corsicana. Lyman T. Davis began selling his chili from a wagon downtown in 1895. He started canning the chili in 1921 and called it Wolf Brand in honor of his pet wolf. The name of the wolf was Kaiser Bill.
In 1923, a second oil deposit known as the Powell Field was discovered, and a new boom period began. The Handbook of Texas notes: “Within a few months, Corsicana’s population swelled to unprecedented heights. Some estimates placed the number of residents as high as 28,000 during the peak months of the oil frenzy. Construction transformed the face of the city, and stoplights were installed for the first time to control the increased traffic. During the height of the Powell Field boom, 550 wells in and around the city produced an estimated 354,000 barrels per day.”
Corsicana now has about 24,000 residents.
With all due respect to the sales ability of Tom McElwee, John Ringling must get much of the credit for making the fruitcakes from Corsicana popular across the country. Born in 1866 in Iowa as the son of a German immigrant who made harnesses, Ringling was one of seven brothers (there was one sister). Five of the brothers formed a traveling show in 1884. In 1889, they moved from animal-drawn wagons to railroad cars, becoming the first circus to truly travel the country. By 1925, John Ringling’s wealth was estimated at $200 million. He was one of the investors in the original Madison Square Garden in New York.
He loved the Corsicana fruitcakes and wanted his friends to experience them.
Fruitcakes have been around since the Roman times, when preserved fruits, honey and spices were mixed with barley mash. They soon spread across Europe and later became popular in the American colonies. In England, fruitcakes usually are known as plum cakes.
Collin Street Bakery relied on the local availability of pecans, leading to the term “nutty as a fruitcake,” which was coined in the 1930s.
Johnny Carson often would joke that there was only one fruitcake in world, passed from one family to another each Christmas.
But you can bet that the Corsicana fruitcake from the Collin Street Bakery, still using Gus Weidmann’s recipe, will be on our table once again this Christmas.