Editor’s Note: On Saturday, May 10 at 1 p.m., the state’s DCR and the Dorchester Historical Society will team up to present a special “Sweet History Stroll” to explore the former Baker Chocolate Factory site and learn about the sweet history of Lower Mills for those ages 10 and up. Meet at the public parking lot in Milton Lower Mills, beside the Milton Yacht Club at 36 Wharf St. In 2002, the Reporter published this brief history of the Walter Baker Chocolate Factory by Peter F. Stevens.
Something was in the air. People on their daily rounds along the roads of Dorchester and Milton Village turned toward the Neponset River and inhaled the spring breeze and took a deep whiff. Chocolate was in the air- literally.
The year was 1765. The heavenly scent drifted from a sawmill on the banks of the river, within eyeshot of Boston. Inside the mill an Irishman watched two giant millstones grinding fragrant cocoa and sounding a call to a culinary revolution that was to spread from Dorchester and conquer the collective palate of America.
In the fall of 1764, Dr. James Baker smelled an opportunity along the Neponset River. A mouth-watering, money-making product - that was what materialized that autumn in Baker’s chance encounter with down-on-his-luck Irish immigrant John Hannon.
Baker, a Harvard graduate who had practiced “physicke [sic.],” medicine, for a time and had run a Dorchester store, met Hannon on a local road and soon discovered that even though the Irishman did not have a shilling in his pocket, he did possess a prized skill. John Hannon knew how to make chocolate, for which colonists were willing to part with steep sums. And even after paying for the pricey product, imported from the West Indies, people had to “work” for their “fix” by grinding chocolate with mortar and pestle or with cumbersome, expensive “hand mills.”
Most significantly for Baker, the Irishman not only knew how to make the “sweet stuff,” but also how to set up and run a chocolate mill. Several New Englanders had tried to set up chocolate-grinding operations, but none had taken off. The closest that any entrepreneurs had come was in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1752, when Obadiah Brown had built a water-powered mill and had churned out four hundred pounds of the treat for Newport merchants.
But he was not in the business for the long haul, just for a quick and lucrative profit. Baker, once he had determined that the Irish immigrant knew the chocolatier’s trade, staked both savings and energy on the venture, which he hoped would prove long-term.
Although Hannon and his Dorchester backer and partner did not need a huge space to launch their scheme, they did require unlimited water power. They looked no farther than the Neponset, Baker getting his hands on a sawmill nestled alongside the river.
In the spring of 1765, Hannon was ready to put the plan to the test by grinding cocoa beans between two massive circular millstones. Now, his Dorchester partner would learn whether the Irishman knew his craft or had sold him a proverbial bill of goods..
Hannon set the top millstone to one third, the speed used to grind corn.
As the stone groaned and began to spin, he poured cocoa beans into a hole cut through the stone’s center. Then, the Neponset’s flow set the bottom stone whirling, and the motion of both “wheels” pulverized the beans into a thick syrup. The Irishman and Baker poured the liquid into a giant iron kettle and then into molds, where the concoction cooled to form chocolate “cakes,” more like “bricks” in weight and consistency.
With that first batch, Hannon proved that he could deliver the goods. America’s first bona fide chocolate factory had been born along Dorchester’s banks.
No one knows exactly how and where Hannon had honed his expertise with chocolate. His past was - and is - elusive. But the enigmatic Irishman and the Dorchester doctor were poised to “cure” “chocolate-lovers’ elbow” - the soreness that colonists endured from grinding their own cocoa beans with their own pestles or hand mills.
Rising orders compelled Baker and Hannon to move the operation in 1768 to a larger space on the Neponset, Baker renting a fulling (cloth) mill from his brother-in-law, Edward Preston. Preston, however, was not satisfied with merely being the chocolatiers’ landlord. He had his eyes on the business - literally. For the moment, he appeared “interested” in only a curious fashion, but all that would change.
In 1772, Baker, with sales continuing to swell, opened a second Dorchester mill. Speculation that he and Hannon, who continued to operate the other plant, had quarreled and had either parted ways or forged a looser partnership, abounded. Baker had learned much from the Irishman: the new mill turned out nearly nine hundred pounds of chocolate in 1773.
Baker’s decision to branch out proved both profitable and lucky, for in 1775, Hannon’s concern burned to the ground. The Irishman, probably able to foot his own operating costs now, rented space in a Neponset snuff mill, grinding and pouring “cakes” once again and presumably making sure that no tobacco residue from the adjoining business drifted into his pouring kettles.
With the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, the Dorchester chocolate-makers struggled to stay in business. Their dependence upon cocoa from the West Indies forced the pair to smuggle shipments of beans through the web of Royal Navy warships prowling the eastern seaboard. Even after the Patriot cannons bristling atop Dorchester Heights helped force the “lobsterbacks’” departure from Boston, Baker and Hannon still faced the headache of running beans through the Royal Navy’s gauntlet, not to mention paying the war-inflated costs of cocoa.
In 1779, Hannon reportedly vanished on a voyage to buy beans in the West Indies. No one in Dorchester ever again saw or heard from him. Various sources believe he perished in a shipwreck; however, others contend that he vanished only from his vitriolic marriage to a Boston woman named Elizabeth Doe. To Hannon’s partner, Dr. James Baker, business history beckoned.
Baker was soon enmeshed in legal wrangles with Hannon’s “widow,” who seemed intent on running her husband’s mill with his capable apprentice, Nathaniel Blake, as her workhorse. Blake, deciding that Mrs. Hannon was running the business into the ground, walked out on her. He had little trouble in finding a new post - with James Baker.
By 1780, Baker had wrested his former partner’s mill from the widow. Chances were that the Dorchester entrepreneur had bought her out. Consolidating the operation under one roof on the site of the mill that had burned down in 1775, Baker’s sales soared.
The cash that Baker’s chocolate poured into his account spurred his brother-in-law, Edward Preston, to make a move after twelve years of watching Baker struggle and eventually succeed. Preston had studied the operation from millstones to handbills. In the 1790s, Preston’s chocolate vied for space on tables and in cupboards with Baker’s wares.
James Baker, the Harvard doctor and businessman who had launched America’s first permanent and profitable chocolate factory, stepped down after nearly four decades as “the king of cocoa.” He chose his son Edmund as the successor to the family business.
Edmund Baker soon began taking the venture to levels that his father and Hannon could scarcely have dreamed of in 1765. In 1806, Baker Chocolate’s new chief opened a state-of-the-art chocolate mill alongside the Neponset, as well as opening a gristmill and a cloth mill nearby. With the Baker complex the focal point, the Neponset was dubbed “the river of American business.”
Baker expanded sales from the Northeast to the western outposts of the young republic’s widening borders. But in 1812, America’s second war with Britain suddenly heaped upon Edmund Baker the same shipping problems his father had suffered during the Revolution. This time, the Royal Navy’s squadrons choked off cocoa shipments so effectively that the kettles and molds inside the Baker chocolate mill stood virtually empty for two years.
With the war’s end in 1814, cartloads of cocoa beans rumbled into the impressive, three-story stone edifice Baker had built. Soon, Baker’s best was on the shelves of America’s general stores again.
Edmund Baker entrusted the company to his son Walter. One of Walter’s first gambits was to expand his work force. In a sign of the changing times in the nation, two of the Dorchester businessman’s hires were young women, Mary and Christiana Shields, who walked onto the plant floor in petticoats in 1834. By 1846, Baker’s payroll included several women.
Walter Baker’s mill, the fragrance of its chocolate to many passersby notwithstanding, was hardly a comfortable workplace. In summer, employees swooned from the kettles’ brown molten fumes and from the temperature within and outside the factory. In winter, gusts roared from the Atlantic and up the Neponset, the chill assailing workers inside and outside the plant and making the steaming kettles a desirable spot around which to gather.
The Baker workers nonetheless made their boss the first name in American chocolate. Such success also led to tough competition from chocolate-making interlopers. By 1835, the Preston mill rolled out 750 pounds of the product a day. The banks of the Neponset featured a third chocolate competitor, Webb & Twombley, by 1842. The scent of chocolate permeating the area led locals to call the site “Chocolate Village.”
The pressure to fill endless wagonloads of “brown gold” was acute for Baker and his Dorchester rivals alike, for, with refrigeration for chocolate products nonexistent, the millstones ground to a halt in summer. Finally, in 1868, the advent of refrigeration turned the Chocolate Wars into year-round “combat.”
Walter Baker died in 1852, before the family could reap refrigeration’s benefits to the business. His passing marked the end of the Bakers’ hegemony in the chocolate business, which they had ruled for nearly ninety years. The Baker Chocolate Factory continued to turn out its near-legendary products along the Neponset until 1965. In that year, two centuries after a Dorchester doctor and shopkeeper and an Irishman set their first two millstones into motion, General Foods, Baker’s parent outfit since 1927, shut down the venerable red-brick plant and moved the operation to Dover, Delaware.
It is in the annals of Dorchester, not Dover, or anywhere else, that the proud legacy of Baker Chocolate truly lives on. For Dorchester was the site of America’s first successful chocolate mill, where Dr. James Baker and John Hannon turned cocoa into cash.
Today, America’s love affair with chocolate waxes unabated, testimony to the “taste” and acumen of Dr. Baker and Hannon.