William Edmonson’s decorated cakes were legendary about town, but none compared to the large fruitcake displayed in the bakery’s front window at Christmas 1872.
Fruitcake: Do you love it or hate it?
Its heyday has passed, but this sweet bakery was once a staple in Christmas traditions across Europe and North America.
When the Romans were trying to conquer Britain, they brought this ancient version of an energy bar to support their soldiers.
If you don’t like the modern version of the Christmas fruit cake, you may want to increase the original recipe. The Roman fruit cake was barley, raisins, nuts, honey and a liberal splash of wine. When the Romans left, their idea of the cake remained and changed over time to what we see today.
Another good feature of this cake, which is not important today, is its exceptional shelf life. All those sugary, boozy ingredients made great preserves in the days before refrigeration.
So how did fruitcake become a Christmas thing? After the church reforms that swept across Britain and Europe in the 1500s, an era of austerity entered, and frivolous things like cake were largely abandoned. Slowly, sweet products became acceptable in certain celebrations and in a way fruitcake became associated with Christmas.
Of course, this traditional food made its way to North America with the arrival of European immigrants. One such newcomer was William Edmanson, a baker from Yorkshire, England.
Edmanson was born in 1830 and traveled to Canada by sailing ship, a six-week journey, in 1855. He brought his wife and three children to Woodstock, Ontario.
Within a decade, the family had grown to five more children and the whole group relocated to nearby Bradford. William Edmanson soon became the operator of a successful bakery there.
In the 1870s, that unwelcome visitor known as fire made frequent appearances in Barrie. Block by block burned until one of the original business buildings remained. Bradford suffered the same fate in May 1871 when its entire business section burned down, as did most of the houses in the community.
Edmanson’s 1916 obituary mentions that it was this misfortune that led the baker to move his family and business to Barrie. The ad did not mention how the Bradford fire started, but more details can be found in an account published in the magazine Northern Progress May 25, 1871.
“This morning around seven, the men who work at the Edmanson bakery on Holland street, filled the oven with fuel, preparing to start the hot day’s work, and went to breakfast. About half an hour after they left, they saw smoke and flames coming out of the building, and they sounded the alarm.”
By the spring of 1872, William Edmanson had opened the Edmanson & Son Confectionary Establishment on Dunlop Street. His first store was on the north side of the street between Five Points and Owen Street.
Edmanson moved before the 1875 fire that destroyed the entire block. The bakery later operated out of the fireproof “Sheriff’s Brick Block”, otherwise known as the McConkey Building, at 86-88 Dunlop St. E.
The business eventually expanded to include biscuit manufacturing, groceries, restaurant facilities and event catering.
William Edmonson’s decorated cakes were legendary about town, but none compared to the large fruitcake displayed in the bakery’s window at Christmas 1872.
“Men. Edmanson & Son are putting on the best ice cake show we’ve ever seen in this latitude. The father of cakes, as Mr. Edmanson calls it, is a magnificent six-story cake, three meters high and surrounded by a beautiful basket of artificial flowers in the frosting process. The cake measures six feet in circumference at its base and weighs 120 pounds. He is so beautifully raised that he would be sorry if they put a knife in.’
The Northern Progress The December 19, 1872 article said smaller cakes of the same style sold for seventy-five cents. However, the “king of them all” would cost roughly fifty dollars, which translates to twelve hundred dollars in today’s currency. Now, that’s fruitcake!
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archives provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse into the city’s past. This special column features photos and stories from years past and is sure to appeal to the historian in all of us.