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Oldest Toast in Wisconsin?

Charred bread slices recovered from the Alden's Corners archaeological site in Dane County, Wisconsin.
(Museum object #2002.211.1,3,5)

In 2002, archaeologists from the Museum Archaeology Program of the Wisconsin Historical Society were surprised to find what may be the oldest pieces of toast in Wisconsin. Archaeologists recovered the toast, several slices of charred bread, from the Alden's Corners Post Office site during excavations for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's work on U.S. Highway 12. The site dates between 1850 and 1880, making the toast at least 125 years old.

Once a small hamlet in northwest Dane County, Alden's Corners formed in the 1850s primarily to meet the needs of local agricultural workers. While farmers could provide themselves with most of their own food, they often relied on country stores for clothing, shoes, firearms, tools, medicine, and other "luxury" goods.

Initially founded by Yankees from New England, including John, Jacob, and Abisha Alden, by the late 1860s Alden's Corners and the surrounding countryside had become home to a growing number of German immigrants. At its peak, Alden's Corners supported a store, a school, and a post office, in addition to several homes. Gradually, however, the hamlet withered due to economic and social competition with other nearby communities, such as Roxbury and Meyer's Corners. In May 1879 the post office closed and only the school remained open to keep the memory of Alden's Corners alive until it, too, finally closed its doors in 1933.

Archaeologists unearthed the bread from a cellar associated with the remains of a wooden cabin that was probably the first structure built at Alden's Corners. Here they discovered not one, but several bread slices from what is believed to be a single loaf, including those pictured at left. The center slice of bread in the accompanying image now measures a little over 5 inches wide by slightly under 2 inches in height and is about a half inch thick, but all of the slices have shrunk in size since their excavation by as much as fifteen percent due to changes in environmental conditions, and were most likely larger when first baked.

DNA tests on small samples of the bread have confirmed it was made of wheat, a major cash crop in Wisconsin during the 1860s and 1870s. Examinations have also determined that the slices are from a yeast bread. The baker originally hand-shaped the dough into a log shape, allowed it to rise, and then baked it. As the dough expanded, it spread out into the low, elongate loaf that is still visible in the shape of the existing slices.

While bread normally decomposes relatively quickly after its production, a combination of circumstances allowed these specimens to be preserved for more than a century. Charring, which largely carbonized the cellulosic material, and the bread being quickly covered with ash, discouraging scavenging by animals, both proved vital to preserving the bread.

Other food remains at the site were also well-preserved. In addition to an abundance of eggshell fragments, probably from chicken eggs, archaeologists also found bone from cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys as well as some wild game such as white-tailed deer, fish, turtles, and waterfowl.

Research on the Alden's Corners site conducted by MAP on behalf of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

[Sources: Hawley, Marlin F. and Gerard Engelen. "'Toast' at Alden's Corners," Nutritional Anthropologist, Vol 27, December 2004; Hawley, Marlin F., Kim Zunker, and Leah Rausch. "The Alden's Corners Post Office (47 DA-758) Site" (Wisconsin Historical Society, Museum Archaeology Program, 2004); Bushland, Yvonne, personal observation of specimens, 2004.]


Posted on April 28, 2005

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