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Small town’s bakers do it all

By Staff | Dec 11, 2009

Donna Christ and her mother Janice Winter pose in the small kitchen they use to bake hundreds of cakes and thousands of "Donna's Buns" each year as part of their business at the Ledyard Country store. Between them Winter and Christ have more than 50 years of experience working and baking at the store, which has been a small town grocery for more than 100 years.

LEDYARD In a small town a locally owned business is often the glue that holds the community together. In this north Kossuth County community local bakers Donna Christ and her mother Janice Winter are the batter.

“You know you’ve been here too long when people come in and you know what they need before they do,” Christ said. “People come in and say, ‘What do I need?’ or ‘What is it Mom likes?’ these are things your grocer knows.”

From their location in downtown Ledyard, which has been used as a grocery store for more than 100 years, Christ, Winter and their families serve as everything from traditional butcher and baker to city newspaper and emergency contact.

For at least as long as the mother and daughter team have been working there the Ledyard Country Store has been the place for “Donna’s Buns,” a staple of funerals, graduations and almost any public meal around the area. Likewise, Winter’s cakes are a near given at events from birthday parties to weddings for decades.

Customers come from neighboring communities in southern Minnesota for the Country Store’s hand-cut meat products and even visiting workers come to know the store as the unofficial bistro where heat and eat entrees from chili to hot beef are available to carry out or dine-in in the store’s back room.

Janice Winter and Donna Christ show off some of the holiday decorations that decorate the Ledyard Country Store in Ledyard. In addition to providing hand-cut meat products and preparing cakes, buns, entrees and snacks for customers across the county the mother daughter team decorate their store for major holidays with hand-made quilts made by Winter and seasonal decorations arranged by Christ.

Winter, who bought the building along with her husband Dave Winter, in 1995, said there was never a formal decision to make her business so much more than a just a grocer.

Full service – which includes delivery as well as helping customers with the occasional household chore – is simply the expectation and the edge that helps a small business succeed.

“That’s what keeps us going,” Winter said. “In a town of 125 you have to be very flexible and do your best to meet people’s needs. When you do that you get a lot of support like we have enjoyed.”

Christ, whose husband, three sisters and two children have also pitch in from time-to-time. They help by minding the store, cutting meat and helping cover the holiday demand for buns, said the ever-expanding list of items and services is in part a product of always trying to make the most of the business.

“If you have bananas that are starting to get over ripe you make banana bread. You use whatever you can so that nothing ever goes to waste,” she said. “Homemade things always sell, so there’s very good reason to use what you have.”

The full service philosophy extends to catering for local events, making homemade caramels, cookies and other holiday candies and setting out a selection of fresh baked pastries each morning for hungry patrons.

“When Mom makes something its always in mass quantities,” Christ said. “She grew up with a family of 12, so she didn’t learn to do anything small. As we were growing up there were times she would do 60 to 80 graduation cakes.

“Every surface in the house would be covered with them and we would have just a little corner of the table to eat off of.

Winter’s farm near Ledyard is a link in a long running cooking and baking tradition. Self-reliance and farm fresh ingredients – in addition to a headfull of “pinch of this, splash of that” recipes – are values passed down from generation to generation.

Winter has produced a number of family cookbooks to share that wisdom with her friends and neighbors around the area. Her own creations still use fresh eggs collected daily on the farm.

From the family farm, Winter’s and Christ’s cooking has become a staple of the community. In addition to cakes and buns special ordered for celebrations and events around the county Donna’s Buns are delivered regularly to local restaurants.

They also show up at the concession stands for school sporting events, usually as the wrapper for pork patties or other products also prepared at the country store.

The family’s cooking prowess is even appreciated as far away as Afghanistan.

One of Winter’s sons-in-law, Dennis Spilman, a sergeant in the Army National Guard, receives regular shipments of treats direct from Ledyard. Most of the bounty is kept private, but the morsels that are shared around have earned a following.

“We’ve always accused Mom of cooking for an army,” Christ said. “Now that she is sending these care packages over we’ve started joking that after all these years she actually is cooking for the army.”

Janice’s chocolate cake

1.5 cup sugar

1/2 cup margarine

Cream together

ADD:

2 eggs

Beat, then add

2 cups flour

1/2 cup cocoa

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat ell. Then add

1 cup boiling water

1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat together. Then bake at 350 degrees.

Frosting

1 cup Crisco

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 tablespoon almond extract

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1/2 cup cold water

Beat together and spread on cooled cake.

Caramels

2 cups brown sugar

1 cup white corn syrup

2 sticks butter

1 can Borden’s Eagle Brand milk

Cook in heavy skillet. Melt butter in skillet, as it melts stir in sugar and other ingredients except vanilla. Boil hard for 12 to 13 minutes.

Note: Don’t start timing until it reaches a boil that can’t be stirred down.

Remove from heat, add vanilla and pour into a well-buttered 9-by-13-inch pan and cool.

When cooled, cut edges loose and turn upside down onto waxed paper. Cut in strips and then into short pieces. Wrap in waxed paper.

Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at stillman.kw@gmail.com.

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