Mrs. Baird’s: Cowtown Born and Bread

A half-century ago, if you had been blindfolded and chauffeured around Fort Worth with the car’s windows rolled down, there were only a few places you could identify merely by smell.

The Mrs. Baird’s Bakery on Summit Avenue was one of them. The smell of baking bread masked even the smell of automobile exhaust from the nearby West Freeway.

The smell of that bread was also the smell of success: Mrs. Baird’s was the country’s largest family-owned bakery. And one of the biggest in Texas: At one time one in every four loaves of bread sold in Texas was baked by the eight Baird’s plants.

The smell of the Summit Avenue bakery, although the bread therein was mass-produced by stainless steel machinery and giant ovens, evoked visions of a simpler time, of single loaves of bread baked in a wood-burning stove in the kitchen of a Victorian cottage and given away to neighbors over the back yard fence.

And that’s indeed that’s how it all began.

Ninia Lilla Harrison was born in Tennessee in 1869. Her mother died when Ninnie was a child, and Ninnie was taught the art of baking by an aunt.

Ninnie’s father, Elisha, remarried, and in 1880 the family was living in Gibson County, Tennessee.

In 1886 Ninnie married William Allen Baird, and they operated a small bakery in Covington, Tennessee. In 1901 they and their four children moved to Fort Worth. Two other children had died young.

In 1977 son Hoyt told the Star-Telegram that his father brought with them to Fort Worth the town’s first steam popcorn machine, which he set up at the corner of 7th and Main streets.

“It had a clown on top, and a steam whistle,” Hoyt Baird said. “And popcorn was a nickel for a big sack, with real melted butter on it.”

William Baird added a second popcorn machine at 5th and Main streets and put oldest son Dewey, age eleven, in charge of it.

By 1902 William and Ninnie operated a small restaurant on Jones Street downtown near Santa Fe’s Union Depot. In 1977 son Hoyt recalled that his job was to ride his bicycle early every morning to a South Side butcher shop to get meat for the restaurant. When he got back to the restaurant he started a fire in the stove and made cake batter before leaving for school.

And by 1905 William and Ninnie operated a restaurant on Main Street.

In 1907, the family, now numbering nine, rented a cottage on Hemphill Street on the near South Side. The Telegram printed letters to Santa Claus from two of the Baird children.

Ninnie, not William, was listed as a baker in 1907. Ninnie had always baked for her family and had given away any surplus food to neighbors.

Son Hoyt recalled in 1977: “You know, people in those days used to hand things across the fence to their neighbors, and with my mother, it was loaves of bread. Even in those days, everyone called it ‘Mrs. Baird’s Bread.’”

Her baked goods were so popular in the neighborhood that when William’s health begun to fail, and his ability to work declined, Ninnie began to sell the bread, pies, and cakes that she had heretofore given away.

She had been baking three days a week for her family. Now she baked six days a week.

Baking allowed her to earn money at home, where she could also care for her husband and children.

Sometimes she stirred bread dough with one hand while holding a baby with the other.

By selling bread, she became the breadwinner.

In the beginning Mrs. Baird used her wood-burning kitchen stove, which baked only four loaves at a time. Her four sons—Hoyt, Dewey, Roland, and C. B.—delivered the bread on foot, each carrying a basket containing six loaves, after they came home from school each day. Soon they graduated to delivery by bicycle.

“Mama put flour sacks in big baskets, hinged at the top like picnic baskets, and then set the bread in them, and covered them over with another sack,” Hoyt Baird recalled.

Mrs. Baird bought a larger oven from the Metropolitan Hotel for $75 ($25 cash and the balance in bread and rolls).

Her sons used a bucksaw to cut cords of wood into sticks of oven-size length.

Word-of-mouth was the first advertising for the family business. To meet demand the family buggy was converted into a delivery wagon with a bell. The wagon was pulled by the Bairds’ two horses, Ned and Nellie.

Although Ninnie Baird often worked sixteen hours a day, she occasionally rode along with Hoyt as he made deliveries.

Hoyt recalled, “Ned knew that route better than I did, I think—and while I was delivering bread inside a house, Ned ate the grass in people’s front yards.”

In 1910 the Bairds moved to Fairmount and rented a cottage (c. 1901) at 1015 Cactus Avenue.

In the 1910 census William Baird and son Dewey were listed as bakers. There were now eight children ranging in age from one to twenty.

Four days before Christmas 1911 William Allen Baird died. The cause of death was listed as “blood poisoning.”

He was forty-four years old.

(In the Dallas Morning News obituary, “N. Baird” should be “W. A. Baird,” “Texas avenue” should be “Cactus Avenue,” and “six” should be “eight.” Otherwise, the brief is accurate.)

Now widowed at age forty-two with eight children, Ninnie Baird knew she had to add some yeast to the family business.

She convinced the landlord to convert a servants quarters behind the cottage into a bakery—with a larger brick oven—and a bakery store.

Mrs. Baird baked each morning and each afternoon took off her apron, put on a clean dress, and worked in the store.

She now sold creampuffs, layer cakes, pies, and cinnamon rolls in addition to bread and dinner rolls.

In 1917 Mrs. Baird bought a Ford Model T truck to replace the horse-drawn delivery wagon. The sons took out the seats and added a panel body. On the sides they painted “Eat More Mrs. Baird’s Bread.”

Charlie Longguth went to work for the Bairds in 1918 as their first hired employee. He was the delivery man on Route 1—a job he held more than thirty years. In 1949 he recalled the delivery truck.

“It had no doors or windows in it, and you just had to sit and take the cold air. Times have changed so much. Sometimes the bread was wrapped and sometimes it was unwrapped. We would place it unwrapped on the grocer’s counter. We didn’t have racks like we do now. My route was the entire city, covering the old South Side and part of uptown. Worked from daylight ’til dark, sometimes nineteen hours a day.”

After World War I began, Mrs. Baird added a big customer: Camp Bowie.

Another big account was Sandegard’s, a chain of sixteen local grocery stores.

By 1918 the intersection of Washington and Cactus avenues had the Mrs. Baird’s bakery smell that a later generation would remember from the intersection of Summit Avenue and the West Freeway.

After 5 p.m. on weekdays automobiles and buggies would line up for two blocks or more as people waited to buy baked goods fresh from the oven.

(The Cactus and Washington addresses are actually the same place. The Baird cottage and bakery were located at the intersection. The cottage had a Cactus address; the bakery had a Washington address. Cactus Avenue today is Jefferson Street.)

After ten years, demand had outgrown supply. It was time for Ninnie Baird’s home-based business to leave home.

In 1919 Mrs. Baird built a 2,100-square-foot plant on West Terrell Street at 6th Avenue in today’s medical district. The gas-fired oven could bake four hundred loaves.

And it was time to stop selling retail and become a wholesaler.

Ninnie’s sons, who were raised with the family business, increasingly took a leadership role in its operation.

It also was time for Ninnie to stop living in rented cottages. She still had four children living at home.

She bought a big two-story brick house on a large lot at 2601 Scott Avenue in Sycamore Heights, which was then on the edge of town.

By 1928 the plant on Terrell Street had been enlarged nine times and was one of the largest baking facilities in Texas.

Also in 1928 a Baird’s bakery was opened in Dallas.

Houston got a plant in 1938, Abilene in 1949, Victoria, Lubbock, Austin, and Waco in 1960.

In 1936 Ninnie moved to 2429 Rogers Avenue near TCU. The house was designed by Joseph Pelich.

Also in 1936 the company bought three hundred acres in what is today north Arlington. The land became the Baird farm (as in Baird Farm Road).

Two years later the company built the Summit Avenue plant, designed by Wyatt Hedrick.

In the beginning the new plant produced only bread. The Terrell Avenue plant produced cakes.

The new plant had two “tunnel traveling” ovens. Each oven, seventy feet long, produced three thousand loaves an hour.

With addition of the new plant Baird’s employed more than three hundred people.

About 1939 Santa Claus became a seasonal employee at the bakery.

W. D. Smith photo from Fort Worth in Pictures.

Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.

Fort Worth Press ad of 1948.

Ninnie Baird, who began a multimillion-dollar business by giving away loaves of bread over her back yard fence, died in 1961. She was ninety-two years old.

She had outlived her husband by fifty years. And she had lived to see her grandsons take up the family business.

The Texas State Senate passed a resolution praising her as “a living example for mothers, wives, business executives, Christians and good people the world over.”

Mrs. Baird is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

In 1970 the company announced that it would build a new plant and corporate headquarters on the South Freeway.

In 1990 son Hoyt was the last of her ten children to die.

Two years later the Summit Avenue bakery was demolished, and its bread production was transferred to the South Freeway plant.

The Vernon Baird we remember from TV commercials was the son of Hoyt. Vernon died in 1992.

In 1998, ninety years after Mrs. Baird began selling bread, the company was bought by Grupo Bimbo of Mexico.

The Baird house in Fairmount still stands. Today the address is 1801 Washington Avenue.

Watch a 1955 Mrs. Baird’s TV commercial:

Posts About Women in Fort Worth History


This entry was posted in Advertising, Heads Above the Crowd, Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Mrs. Baird’s: Cowtown Born and Bread

  1. Rilla Terry says:

    I loved everything about Mrs Baird Bakery and farm. Back in the late 50s and early 60s my dad would take us for drives into FW. I remember the old bakery and the wonderful smells.
    As a kid I was told the Bairds lived on the farm in North Arlington. Did they ever spend any time there? I always thought it started at the farm.

    • hometown says:

      The Baird family bought the land for the farm in 1937, well after Mrs. Baird began the bakery in Fairmount. The family used the farm for its outings. The farm also was used by churches, scouts, and other groups for their outings.

  2. John Olthoff says:

    My now ex-wife worked at Stripling & Cox on Camp Bowie, I drove I-30 even though was longer way. Just so could get that smell.

  3. Suzanne Hammond says:

    Growing up in Ridglea, I remember that Vernon and Marcy Baird and their kids lived around the corner from us on Clayton Rd W., off Westridge Ave. Then when my folks moved over to Kirk Dr up from Clayton Lake, the Bairds had moved to Tamworth Dr., down from the lake, too. I think that my dad had known Vernon when they were growing up in FtW. And we NEVER missed going to see Santa at the Bakery!!

  4. Teresa E Crawford says:

    Do you have a list of all the homes in which she lived? Was one of them on Townsend Drive? My grandfather, Jno W Padgett, was supposed to have built one of her homes. Just curious as to which one.

    • hometown says:

      A search of city directories does not show her on Townsend, but that proves nothing. She was in Fairmount until at least 1918, on Scott by 1920 into 1935, on Rogers by 1936 until her death.

  5. Rick Twitty says:

    Many years ago my dad ( Otis Lionel Twitty ) told me that he had a bakery in Ft Worth with even electric delivery vehicles ! He said Mrs Bairds was his competitor . He did not make it through the depression , but she did . I so regret that I did not write down the name of his bakery. Do you have the names of Ft. Worth bakeries during the 20s 30s? I might remember it if I saw it . Sincerely , Rick Twitty

  6. Rita Morris Vinson says:

    In the 1950s my father, Lewis Morris, was a maintenance man at Mrs. Baird’s cake bakery in the medical district. It was near the original Walter Jetton’s BBQ restaurant, which had stand-up counters and sawdust on the floor–until the fire department brought an end to the sawdust. C.B. Baird taught my father and my brother, Leon, to water ski in his simple aluminum boat with an outboard motor. My father got an aluminum boat of his own and continued waterskiing until he was 65.

    • hometown says:

      What a great memory, Rita! I can see you on a Fort Worth version of the TV quiz show “I’ve Got a Secret”:
      “C. B. Baird taught my father to water ski”!

  7. la'nieyah says:

    she is my fav baker

  8. Juanell Baker Wilson says:

    To this day, I purchase mrs. Baird’s bread. I remember the wonderful aroma from the Dallas plant near SMU.I am happy to know and read if her family heritage.
    Thanks to the Baird family
    For your successful bakery.

  9. MarciBoCu says:

    Charming to read & brings back wonderful memories-thx.

  10. Michael Anderson says:

    When I was in the 6th grade at Lily B. Clayton Elementary School, I had C. B. Baird (Ninnie’s grandson?) as a teacher. He was the first male teacher I had ever had. We called him “Cowboy” (C.B. — Cowboy, get it. Hey we were 6th graders.) He is also the reason I became a school teacher.

    I grew up on Edwin Street in Mistletoe Heights, and the smell of fresh-baked bread and the lions roaring at the zoo are two of my strongest memories.

    My oldest brother, Pat, was a hot-shot driver for Mrs. Baird’s on weekends while he was a student at North Texas. He often caught rides to and from Denton with another student … Pat Boone.

    • hometown says:

      That would make a great clue to help police solve a kidnapping in a crime story: The victim was blindfolded while in captivity but later told police that he/she could hear lions and smell fresh bread.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *