What’s the connection between music duo Simon & Garfunkel and a lady from 19thcentury Ocean Grove, New Jersey who loved to bake?
It started in the 1870s when a certain Mr. and Mrs. Wagner came to make their summer home in Ocean Grove.
Mrs. Wagner was an energetic woman. She liked to stay busy and she was a fantastic baker, so she offered to do baking for her Ocean Grove friends and neighbors. Pretty soon word got out that Mrs. Wagner’s pies were heavenly, and she started to sell them. In those days, she baked on an old-fashioned wood stove in her small kitchen on Webb Avenue. It probably looked similar to the one pictured below. Her husband delivered the pies in a large wicker picnic basket.
Mrs. Wagner’s pies became more and more popular. So popular that by 1890, the Wagners traded in their wicker basket for a horse-drawn pie wagon, and they moved from Webb Avenue to the house pictured above at 124-126 Mt. Tabor Way. (In the photo above, that’s Mrs. Wagner on the porch with the cat.) In the basement of that house they built a 20×20-foot coal-fired brick oven which could bake between 150 to 200 pies in 45 minutes. They also had a small shop on the basement level. When the neighborhood kids smelled the mouth-watering aroma of those pies wafting over Ocean Grove, they’d press their faces against the window to get a glimpse of the fresh pies coming out of the oven. Years later in the 1950s the house was torn down to make way for a new cottage, and the builders had to excavate the street to get that huge oven out of the basement.
Mrs. Wagner made her pies from fresh fruit that was delivered daily from nearby farms on horse-drawn wagons. She also received 40-quart cans of fresh milk from local dairies. In those days, the milk already had the cream in it, which may have been one of the reasons Mrs. Wagner’s pies were so decadently delicious. We know that she didnot use starch to congeal the pie fillings — just good fresh eggs, and plenty of them. The secret to her light and flaky crust was supposedly a ratio of 12 ounces of pig lard to every pound of flour.
Around 1890 Mrs. Wagner was making 12-inch pies that cost 25 cents each, and single serving pies that cost a nickel. The big pies came in a metal pie plate like the one pictured here. You can see the pan is embossed with “Mrs. Wagner’s Pies”, and you can still sometimes find one of these on eBay.
Mr. Wagner served as the first pie delivery man, until business got so big that the Wagners had to hire a second driver. Each driver would cover one half of Ocean Grove. They’d drive around slowly, twice a day, calling out “Pieman, pieman!” Customers would hear the call, come out to the wagon, and buy pies. Sometimes the customer returned the metal pie plate. But sometimes the Wagners ran low, and in those instances, the customer would bring her own plate out to the truck and a fresh pie would be slid right onto it while it was still warm.
For at least part of the 1890s the Wagners also had a home in New York City, in what we now call Tribeca. They lived across the street from the Washington Market. Washington Market was established in 1812. By 1900 it was the largest market in North America, stretching about a dozen blocks around Washington, Fulton and Vesey Streets. Mrs. Wagner sold her pies there at least part of the year, when she wasn’t in Ocean Grove. She left the Grove in January and returned in the spring. As the popularity of her pies grew, Mrs. Wagner opened additional bakeries in Newark, Jersey City, and Brooklyn.
Joseph Walker was a baker who joined Mrs. Wagner’s Ocean Grove operation in 1904. He was interviewed for a local newspaper in 1965. He gave us a peek into what it was like working in the Wagner’s Ocean Grove bakery. The day before baking at 11:00 a.m., six bakers gathered in the basement on Mt. Tabor Street to prepare the fresh fruit. Then the pie crust would be made and left to stand all day in lard tubs. Meanwhile, the bakers ate and slept upstairs in the house. At 1:00 a.m. the following morning, with Mrs. Wagner supervising, they rolled out the dough on a table that was 4 feet by 40 feet long. The bakers worked on both sides of the table. One would roll out the bottom crust, another the top crust, while yet another would fill the shell with freshly prepared apples, peaches, pineapples and blueberries, and in winter, pumpkin and mincemeat. The bakers worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week.
The Ocean Grove bakery was probably at its height of production in 1907. That year, the bakery turned out 201,746 pies, an average of 650 pies a day. All in a basement in Ocean Grove!
After World War I, production in Ocean Grove stopped and pies for the Jersey Shore were delivered from the Newark plant. The company continued to grow. Mrs. Wagner’s pies were featured at the 1939 World’s Fair, and by then they had loading stations across the country: in Toledo, Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlantic City. 40,000 stores and restaurants bought their pies from Mrs. Wagner. Some of those stores and restaurants kept Mrs. Wagner’s pies in handsome pie safes like the one shown here. You can see the Mrs. Wagner’s label at top center.
By the way, the lady on the label isn’t Mrs. Wagner. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the model for the label was a lady named Clara Louise Bissell.
Sometimes when I’m giving tours at Centennial Cottage in Ocean Grove, I’ll get visitors who grew up in Brooklyn and they still remember going to Mrs. Wagner’s bakery at 283-301 Fourth Avenue between 1stand 2nd streets. On certain days you could buy big restaurant pies with broken crusts for just a dollar. Today it’s an artist and craftsman supply store.
Mrs. Wagner’s pies went out of business in July 1968.
Also in 1968, Simon & Garfunkel released an album called Bookends, which included a song called “America”. Here’s are some of those lyrics:
So we bought a pack of cigarettes
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And walked off to look for America.
Below, watch an episode Curiosities of Ocean Grove about Mrs. Wagner’s Pies, written, researched and hosted by Kim Brittingham.