The array of crackers available to today’s consumers from Market Basket to Trader Joe’s and beyond is stunning. I’m a cracker lover who enjoys eating them plain or with butter, “spread” or hard cheese, peanut butter (sometime with a touch of Fluff), jelly, a dip or crumbled in soup. Ritz crackers with melted butter make a elegant dressing/stuffing for scallops or lobster. But if you have a stomach that needs settling a plain saltine does the trick. This cross-post from Dave McKeon at LowellIrish reminds us of the wonderful, tasty, versatile Lowell Bradt’s Soda cracker – once a staple in so many homes. Take a trip down Memory Lane ~
Thursday nights were food shopping nights when I was growing up in the Acre. We’d get in our 55 Ford and head down Broadway to the Giant Store. It had a big ramp that led up to the food store, or you could take the stairs and go down to look at the toys. When you were done grocery shopping, they’d put your brown paper bags in a metal bin and send it down a long set of rollers, which led outside in order to load at your car. I always wanted to take a ride along that conveyor, but I digress.
One of the items that was on our weekly shopping list was a box of Bradt’s crackers. They came in a long, white rectangular box with blue lettering that said “Bradt’s Soda Crackers.” The crackers were snow white with little air pockets that made them “crispy, but not brittle” as was advertised on the box. I remember they were on a shelf near the ice cream, and I’d have to climb up on the freezer to reach them to put in the shopping cart. There was always the warning of not dropping the box and breaking them before we got them home. There was always a little anxiety to pull out that perfect cracker without breaking it, and then snapping it along the little perforations that would divide the square into quarters.
The company was a Lowell original being manufactured on Whiting Street (between Fletcher and Salem Streets). Today the parking lot for the new UMass buildings completely covers where the small wood and stone factory once stood. My friend, David, lived just steps away from the factory. You could smell the crackers baking in the oven as we played in back of his house. The white-aproned men would often keep the doors and windows open to escape the heat or sneak outside for a smoke. From time to time they’d give us a few of the broken crackers. The wooden floors of the factory were almost snow white with crackers that didn’t meet quality control. Occasionally, farmers would pull up to haul away the sacks of broken pieces to feed their hogs.
Since my dad had ulcers they were a staple of his diet whenever they flared up. My Mother used them in her stuffing, as I think every Lowell mother did. They were great on meatless Fridays with butter or peanut butter. Probably every family in the area had a box of Bradt’s in their pantry.
The company had deep Lowell roots. It was started by David, Gerrit J(Garrett), and David Bradt in 1833. The Bradts originally worked for Mr. Pierce’s bakery. In just a couple of years the brothers opened their own bakery on Whiting Street and built a home. They acquired tracts of land that make up parts of Bowers Street. Through the years the company took on several names; Bradt’s Soda Crackers, Bradt’s Soda Biscuits, and Bradt’s Common Crackers. The family did well enough that they became involved in real estate and banking. The founder, David Bradt died in 1892, leaving the company to various relatives and slowly declining over the years. He was buried in the family plot in the Lowell Cemetery.
The company was sold off to Oswald Turcotte in the 1930s who tried to re-energize it by broadening the selling area to outside of Lowell and a new advertising campaign. Ads appeared in the papers using the theme “crispness without brittleness.” Mr. Turcotte assured his patrons that they were keeping the original recipe and quality of the 100 year old product, while expanding the line to include oyster crackers and saltines. As November rolled around the ad campaigns showed up in the Lowell Sun. One was a “telegram” by grandchildren reminding Grandma they were coming home for the holiday and her stuffing made with Bradt’s crackers. Another was a personal endorsement by a Mrs. Edna Riggs Crabtree who used them at her cooking school. The company even had a quite successful bowling league in the 1940s and 50s competing against the likes of Laurin Morticians and Turcotte Wines. They were still advertising for employees in the Lowell Sun up to 1970. The actual date of closing is unclear.
Today we buy water biscuits at outrageous prices at specialty stores. Yet nothing today could compare to a Bradt’s!