As we take for granted the Red Hook of today, especially the “built environment” of our houses, shops and favorite stops, it’s virtually impossible to imagine that just a lifetime ago, Red Hook looked, moved and sounded vastly different.
But in this our Bicentennial year, we feel it is particularly important to take to heart the lesson that the more things change, the more they remain the same. If we’re lucky, that is.
Ask about “the chocolate factory” in Red Hook, for example and most villagers will be able to direct you to the sprawling red brick building at 54 Elizabeth Street. Like many former industrial complexes, through imaginative reuse it now houses a variety of 21st century ventures – from engineering and computer software, to a pre-school, ceramics maker and Irish dance studio.
But 100 years ago, it was home solely to Baker’s chocolate. Not the Baker’s chocolate, familiar to generations of Americans. That was created in 1780 by the Walter Baker Company, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and is part of Kraft Foods.
Red Hook’s chocolate was made by William H. Baker, no relation, and is long gone. But in its day, it helped put Red Hook on the map.
Chocolate was introduced to Europe in the 16th Century by the Spanish, who had observed the Mayans and Aztecs consume hot chocolate for its medicinal effects. It became popular as a drink for the aristocracy in the 1700s, and by the mid-1800s new technologies made cocoa powder and solid chocolate possible, allowing it to became a treat for everyone.
Why chocolate came to Red Hook at all remains a mystery. Certainly proximity to good rail and river transport to and from New York City played a part, as did access to bountiful supplies of milk.
Equally plausible is an old timer’s anecdote we like best: that a wealthy, influential Red Hook resident who “really liked chocolate” simply made it happen.
What is fact is that chocolate arrived in Red Hook courtesy of a relationship between William Henry Baker (“our” Baker) and Joseph Griffing.
Baker was a successful Winchester, Virginia grocer. He had an eye for expansion and a nose for opportunity. By the early 1890s, he’d expanded to New York City, capitalized on the rage for chocolate and gone into business with a second-generation New York City chocolate manufacturer, Joseph Griffing.
By 1895, the demand for W.H. Baker’s chocolate was booming and Griffing was off to Dutchess County at Baker’s request to find larger facilities. He settled on a grist mill located on the upper Saw Kill falls, in Annandale and, around 1896, converted it to “W. H. Baker’s Annandale Mills.”
The new operation soon was churning out a reported eight tons of chocolate, cocoa and cocoa butter a day. And to satisfy the burgeoning consumer taste for milk chocolate candy, Baker and Griffing built the Hudson Valley Confectionery Company close by.
By then, Griffing was overseeing 41 employees, including five children under 16 and advertising, in 1898, in the Red Hook Journal for more “girls to work in the Chocolate Factory at Annandale.” At the turn of the century, the Journal reported “business there is increasing and more room is required.”
With steam rapidly replacing water power, W.H. Baker next expanded into the Village of Red Hook. In 1902, on a site served by the Central of New England Railroad – the “Hucklebush Line” – Griffing built the Chocolate Factory we know today.
A successful entrepreneur, our Baker (William H.), also was an aggressive, shrewd salesman throughout. All along, he knew about the “other” Baker’s chocolate, the one that had become one of America’s first national brands.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then our Baker was a shameless mimic. Using practically identical designs and color schemes, he practically reproduced the original Baker’s Chocolate products, package for package. However soon he was sued for “committing fraud on Walter Baker & Co.”
The judge ordered our Baker to “place on his packages, in prominent type, the words ‘W. H. Baker is distinct from and has no connection with the old chocolate manufactory of Walter Baker & Company.’” He also restrained him from using yellow labels. Not to be deterred, our Baker switched to blue labels that prominently proclaimed “Best quality now with blue label.”
Litigation went on for years, and was further complicated by not one but two other chocolate making Bakers: William H., of Syracuse, who sold “Baker’s Chocolate;” and William Phillips Baker, precise New York location unknown, who also tried to play on the Baker Co. name and reputation.
Apparently these legal battles did little to daunt our Baker’s business. As late as 1911, the Kingston Daily Freeman reported that ‘The Baker Chocolate Factory which has been forced to work overtime owing to increased business has broken ground for a new addition to their factory…”
Alas for Red Hook, William Henry Baker died in 1915 and the business went to his four sons, who sold out to the Walker Candy Company in 1924. In turn, Walker Candy fell victim to the Depression, in 1931. Chocolate making ceased in Red Hook, for the time being.
But what of Joseph Griffing? He left quite a mark. He married three times and fathered nine children, many of whose descendants remain in the area, among them Sue T. Crane, current Red Hook Town Supervisor.
Among his credits, Griffing built the original Lyceum Theater, was president of the First National Bank, a charter member of the Red Hook Fire Company, and sponsor of the twenty-member Joseph Griffing Fire Company Band. He was a partner in the Red Hook Milling Co., a Village trustee, charter member of the Hendrick Hudson Lodge, No. 875, of Masons, and a founding member of the Red Hook Elks Club. In his later years, he operated a fruit farm in Red Hook. He died in 1939 and is buried in St. Paul’s Lutheran cemetery.
And what of chocolate in Red Hook today? For some of the best anywhere, visit Taste Budd’s Café, owned and operated at 40 West Market Street by Dan Budd, many times honored as one of America’s top pastry chefs.
Claudine Klose is president of the Egbert Benson Historical Society of Red Hook. She was formerly deputy director of a Smithsonian Institution research and education center at the Museum of American History, Washington, DC. Chris Klose is contributing editor to MedlinePlus, a quarterly consumer health magazine from the National Institutes of Health. The Kloses live at Echo Valley Farm, tending their sheep and sharing a passion for all things Red Hook.