By Richard G. Biever
If someday the mortar holding together the famed “Yard of Bricks” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is found to be mixed with baking powder — Clabber Girl Baking Powder, to be exact — it should come as no surprise. How the seemingly incongruent worlds of racing and baking forever merged at Indy dates back to 1945.
But it’s a story worth hearing at the Clabber Girl Museum in downtown Terre Haute.
At the museum, which has no admission charge, visitors learn the history of the Hulman family and its many contributions. One is the kitchen cupboard staple for more than a century that enhanced the art of baking. The other is saving and elevating the Indianapolis 500, Indiana’s most famous worldwide export, that enhanced the art of racing.
A revolving door at the corner of Ninth and Wabash spins visitors back into the 1800s. The spacious and attractive museum inhabits the remodeled first floor of the Hulman & Company Building, which has served the Hulman headquarters since it opened in 1893.
Through original and re-created artifacts, and late 1800s/early 1900s office and store-front settings, the museum shares the history of one of the oldest brands in America. It also features glimpses into the history of Terre Haute and the evolution of American baking over the past two centuries.
The museum shows and tells how two German immigrant brothers, Francis and Herman Hulman, started their family business as a wholesale supplier of groceries, tobacco and liquor in Terre Haute in the 1850s. By 1878, the Hulman family company began manufacturing its first brand of baking powder called Milk Brand. In 1899, Milk Brand became Clabber Baking Powder — with “Clabber” being a type of sour milk that in the early 1800s was mixed with pearl ash, soda, cream of tartar, and a few other ingredients to make what we know today as baking powder. In 1923, the name was changed to “Clabber Girl.”
In 1930, 29-year-old Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr., grandson of Herman Hulman, joined the company. He started a nationwide sales campaign and soon, Clabber Girl Baking Powder and its line of other baking products became household names coast to coast as Hulman became president of the family-owned business.
After World War II ended in 1945, Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from owner Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace. During the war, the famed speedway had been neglected and was falling apart. Hulman sensed it was an opportunity to further promote Clabber Girl.
Hulman rebuilt the track, and the race itself entered a golden era. Over the next 50 years, the Indy 500 truly became “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and remains the world’s largest single day sporting event. Each Memorial Day Sunday, one out of every 1,000 Americans will be perched somewhere around the 2.5 mile rectangular oval.
Whenever it rains on race day, you can bet some radio broadcaster will relay at some point that a “break in the clouds,” “a window of opportunity,” has “opened up in Terre Haute” and is heading Indy’s way. Interestingly, that weather forecast seems to sum up the story of how the Clabber Girl and her plate of buttered biscuits came to utter “start your engines” for all these years at the Brickyard. And Indiana is forever better for her contributions to kitchens and race cars.
If you go… The Clabber Girl Museum
Where: 900 Wabash Ave. on the northeast corner of Wabash Avenue and Ninth Street in downtown Terre Haute.
Museum Hours: Mon.-Fri.: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat.: 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Closed on Sundays
Admission to the museum is complimentary.
Groups of more than 10 people are highly encouraged to contact the museum for a guided tour and Bake Shop Café reservations.
Richard G. Biever is senior editor of Electric Consumer.