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.
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.
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: