Issaquah History Museums dishes up historic desserts for 40th anniversary

October 9, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

To celebrate a major milestone, Issaquah History Museums organizers ordered cake — enough cake to stock a bakery.

The museums, founded in 1972 as the Issaquah Historical Society, marks 40 years Oct. 13 and to celebrate, staffers enlisted organizations and volunteers to create the cakes, but rather than the from-the-box Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines confections, bakers agreed to follow recipes lifted from Issaquah’s past.

The community celebration offers participants a chance to sample the cakes, learn about the museums’ history, dance and listen to local musicians perform. Bakers agreed to make a pair of cakes — a cake for eating at the event and another cake for a silent auction.

Cake offered a chance to savor something amid early life in the coal-and-timber outpost, sometimes as a special occasion treat or a way to use excess ingredients. Cake made regular appearances at Sunday dinners a century ago in Issaquah, and the dessert factored into the menus for picnics, church socials and, of course, birthdays.

If you go

Issaquah History Museums 40th anniversary celebration

  • 11 a.m. Oct. 13
  • Issaquah Train Depot
  • 50 Rainier Blvd. N.
  • The event is free, but guests should RSVP by calling the museums at 392-3500 or emailing

Issaquah History Museums cake bakers

  • Big Bear Book Club
  • Downtown Issaquah Association
  • Fall City Historical Society
  • Friends of Newcastle Library
  • Issaquah Parks & Recreation Department
  • Issaquah Schools Foundation
  • Sammamish Heritage Society
  • Seattle Tilth
  • Joel Klein
  • Carolyn Davis

“Cakes are traditionally key to any celebration. That’s been the case for hundreds of years, as it turns out,” said Laile Di Silvestro, program coordinator for the museums. “When people first came to Issaquah in the late 1800s, they brought with them cake recipes that had been in their families for generations, and then they were adapted to the local ingredients that were available here.”

Desserts in early Issaquah (or Squak, or Gilman, depending on the name and the era) often included homegrown ingredients — eggs from a chicken coop, perhaps, or apples and cherries from backyard trees.

The lack of refrigeration meant home bakers needed to find a use for gallon upon gallon of sour milk.

“When milk went sour in the old days people used it in baking,” said Julia Belgrave, archives specialist for the museums. “They would distinguish fresh milk from sour milk by calling it sweet milk.”

Homemakers could turn cakes into something almost legendary, and eateries could gain attention from beyond Issaquah for particularly tasty desserts.

The chocolate cake at the Shamrock Café on Front Street lured customers. Nancy Horrocks recalled the dessert as “the best chocolate cake in captivity,” according to the museums’ oral history archive.

Mary Colton Lucas arrived in Issaquah via train in 1917 to teach children at the Upper Squak School. Though “shocked at the primitive look of the town,” she sampled some coffee and cake at a school board member’s home and started to warm somewhat to Issaquah, according to the oral history archive.

“The cakes are exciting because they integrate a tradition that’s been around here for a long time, as well as the local farming and kitchen gardening activities that were here — the dairy farming and the egg production that were so key to the economy at that time,” Di Silvestro said.

The challenge for modern bakers is finding the right ingredients and techniques to approximate the cakes from decades ago.

“It’s actually going to be really fun for these groups to bake them, because the recipes assume that the people know how to bake, and in a lot of cases that they’re using an old coal oven to bake,” Di Silvestro said. “A lot of them are very imprecise when it comes to the measurements — I’m not sure if that’s because they’re withholding their secrets.”

Belgrave said recipes might call for “a handful of this, 2 or 3 tablespoons of that, and a different measurement for teaspoon — one regular and one large. How much flour would you use when a recipe says that ‘the dough should be thickened tolerably with graham flour?’”

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