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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The "The Cool Town With A History: Part I - The Oldest Pretzel Bakery in America" Story

Preface:  In 2013 a small town by the name of Lititz, Pennsylvania, just to the north of Lancaster was honored by being voted Budget Travel Magazine's America's Coolest Small Town.  At the time I wrote a story telling some of the highlights of the town, but since that time have made many more visits and discovered exactly why the town was given the honor.  The oldest pretzel bakery in the country, one of the earliest Moravian communities in the country and one of the neatest July 4th celebrations in the country all make Lititz a cool town.  The history of Lititz, which is more than 250 years old, is varied and extremely interesting.  Follow along during the next few weeks as I post stories that will give you an idea why Lititz was so honored in 2013.

Elma is explaining how to "twist" a pretzel.
It was an ordinary day.  Watching Elma, my tour guide today, as she shows me how to make a perfectly shaped pretzel.  I'm a guest today at the oldest pretzel factory in America, the Strugis Pretzel Factory which was started by Julius Sturgis in 1861 in the small town of Lititz which is a hop, skip and jump from the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  The structure was actually built in 1784 and is one of the oldest buildings in the Moravian community started by Count Zinzendorf.  The home was built from stones dug in the street in front of it and timber from the surrounding forest.  The home had musket firing cellar windows to ward off Native American attacks, hand-crafted construction which included plank pegged floors, beautifully carved wooden panels on the staircase and heavy wooden doors on iron strap hinges.  
But enough about the place where I am standing.  Elma is in the midst of helping me shape my own pretzel to look as they did when they were first made.  
I found this stone on the side of the building at 219 E. Main St.
The very first pretzel was probably created in Europe when a reference was made by an Italian Monk in 610 A.D. in his diary that he had made a prestiola (an Italian word for "little reward") as a treat for children who learned their prayers.  The traditional unique twisted knot shape of that pretzel is thought to mimic either folded arms across the chest, the wings of angels or even the shape of the Holy Trinity.  
This shows how the dough was prepared.  The dough barrel, sitting to the left, was where the flour, water and yeast stock was mixed to a fairly stiff consistency and left to rise overnight.  The center unit is where the flour was stored and the little item on the right was where the yeast was kept.
It was also said that the Pilgrims introduced the pretzel in Cape Cod Bay in 1620, but it is more likely that the Pennsylvania Dutch population in Lancaster County, who called their creation a "brezel", made the first pretzels in the New World.  

Julius Stugis, founder of the bakery and the hard
crispy pretzel, in front of his winter home in Florida.
Their pretzels, which were soaked and boiled in a lye mixture before being baked, were what we would call a soft pretzel.  Legend has it that a hobo, who was riding a train behind Mr. Sturgis' bakery, asked for a job.  None was available but the hobo was none the less given nourishment.  He in turn gave Mr. Sturgis a recipe for making pretzels.  No one knows for sure if that was the actual recipe used by Mr. Sturgis, but it makes for a good story.  Julius began making pretzels in his bakery as an added product to sell.    
Workers twist pretzels and put them on boards to "proof" or rise, before taking them to the ovens.   
Then one day, the pretzels were left in the oven too long and when taken out later, the pretzel that we know today was born.  The new pretzels had a much longer shelf life which allowed them to be shipped throughout the area, increasing Julius' business.  
The pretzel ovens in front of me are the original ovens used to bake Sturgis pretzels.
The pretzel ovens in front of me, as I listen to Elma, were the original ovens used by the bakers before the turn of the century.  
This shows the baker using the "Peal" to place the pretzels in the oven.
A baker would use a long-handled "peal" to put the twisted pretzel dough into the ovens where it was fired to an intensity of 550 degrees.  
Another view of the bakers making pretzels.  The baker on the left is dipping pretzels in a cook pot filled with straw water and lye, which gives the pretzels their shiny brown coating.  The baker on the right is using the "Peal" to shovel pretzels into the oven.  The finished pretzels can be seen in the bin to the right.
They would bake for about 10 minutes to a golden brown, placed on trays and kiln dried in heated compartments above the ovens for about 2 1/2 hours.  This extra heating would remove excess moisture.  A baker would test a batch by breaking a pretzel and if it crackled when squeezed, it is said it was "talking back" and was OK'd.  The Sturgis family continues to mass produce pretzels today, but in a factory outside of nearby Reading, PA.  It was Tom Sturgis, great grandson of Julius. who moved the operation in 1936 to its location today in Reading.  As for my tour, my only disappointment was that I didn't get to bake the hand-formed pretzel I made.  The ovens no longer are fired in the location at 219 East Main Street in Lititz, Pennsylvania.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

Plaque on the wall of the building.
What the building looks like today.

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