For the last several years, Ranger Michael has wanted a bake oven. Having worked with a bake oven at Grand Portage Tom and I knew how to use one. But, also knowing how much work they are, I wasn’t a big supporter of the idea.
This year, however, volunteers Tim and Tom decided to do something about building a bake oven. They watched videos, ordered the materials, and got to work.
People used bake ovens during colonial times. Most people didn’t have ovens in their homes because the homes were too small. Instead, they would have a shared bake oven outside. Frederica had a couple of bake ovens, staffed by indentured servants working off their indenture. The women of the town would take their baking to the bake oven and the servant would bake it. They usually did a week’s worth of baking in one day.
A bake oven is a beehive shaped oven made of clay or bricks. It is heated by a wood fire inside for three or four hours, then the fire is drawn out of the oven. Sealing it for an hour or two allows the oven to cool and the temperature inside to even out. Baked goods are placed into the oven when it reaches the desired temperature. You can usually bake several loaves of bread, some rolls, and a couple of pies before the oven cools too much to use.
Tom and Tim watched the James Townsend video on building a bake oven and calculated their materials from that. They started with a base made out of tabby blocks that were laying around the maintenance area. They added a level surface using fire bricks and laid out the dimensions of the oven.
After building a form made of sand, they covered the form with a clay mixture. This clay had to dry for several weeks (it is very humid here in Georgia!). Then Tom, Denise and Bob added a layer of tabby to the outside of the oven. When it was all dry, they scraped out the sand that had been the base.
Tom made a door for the oven and built a trial fire in it. When it didn’t collapse during the trial, we decided we were ready for our first items to bake. Ranger Michael suggested a pizza party, so we got the ingredients together and invited all the staff. I made individual pizza crusts and others contributed pizza ingredients.
Tom started the fire in the oven about 9 a.m. After letting it burn for two hours, we took out the fire and let the temperature even out. I threw in a little cornmeal, which is the test to see what temperature the oven is. If the cornmeal burns, it is too hot. If it smokes, the oven is about 450. If it just sits there, the oven is cooler than 425.
Our oven cooled off very quickly and we were ready to put pizzas in it by 11:30. Because the oven was a little cooler than we wanted, we had to leave each group of four pizzas in the oven for 20 minutes. But the oven stayed warm enough for all 12 pizzas. I think we could have baked some cookies in it after the pizzas were done.
Ranger Michael was very pleased with how the oven turned out, although Tom still has a few tweaks. He wants to seal up some of the cracks. And we will write a manual so others know how to use it.
I’m not sure who will demonstrate the bake oven, but we hope it will be good addition to the living history at Fort Frederica.