Tag Archives: Sourdough Starter

Mr. Carl Griffith and his Amazing 1847 Sourdough Starter

Okay, don’t tell anyone (so I can at least try to uphold my façade of snarky rudeness a little longer) but in truth, I am a big ol’ soft-hearted sap. So, when I was recently researching sourdough starter, I came across the Carl Griffith Sourdough Page I had to know more… once I stopped being all choked up over it.

Born in 1919, Carl Griffith wrote that his interest in making sourdough bread started when he was “10 years old and learned to make bread in a dutch oven in a hole in the ground,” using the sourdough starter his family brought with them when they emigrated west along the Oregon Trail in 1847. According to his friends, before the advent of the internet, Carl would gladly share his family’s starter with anyone who asked, but the earliest record of Carl offering his starter to anyone online, is the following post by Carl, made on July 28, 1994 to the Usenet group rec.food.sourdough:

I have dried and will mail out a bit of the starter that my family brought west on an Oregon Trail wagontrain in 1847 along with instructions to revive it and a few recipes if anyone is interested ???? Carl.

Carl sent his starter to anyone who sent him a self-addressed stamped envelope for the next number of years, until he suffered a stroke in early March of 2000 and died a few weeks thereafter, at the age of 80.

Carl Griffith, 1919-2000I talked to Charles Perry and Darrell Greenwood to find out more about how the 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Preservation Society — or “Carl’s Friends” for short — and its website came into being after Carl’s death.

“It all started as a memorial to Carl,” said Charles, while Darrell remarked that “[fellow Usenet member] Dick Adams came up with the idea and made it happen, including getting the website up and running.” Charles continued: “We wanted to continue his tradition. There are probably as many reasons or more why we continue as there are participants in the project. Personally, I prefer to live in a world where people are willing to share information or something useful, such as starter, with a stranger who asks.”

And that’s pretty much what Carl’s Friends have been doing for the past six years. Because they’re scattered throughout the US, they keep a central post office box, at which a volunteer bundles the requests and forwards them to another volunteer who is then responsible for growing, packaging, and mailing the starter in the provided self-addressed stamped envelopes — at a rate of up to 50 a week during the winter baking season.

When I asked Charles what was the most distant request they’d received, he replied with the following:

I have not kept track of all the individual countries where we have sent [sourdough starter], but we have mailed to every continent on the globe except Antarctica. In addition to individuals wanting sourdough for their own personal use, we get requests from teachers, county extension agents, and museums to use in demonstrations or exhibits. We have had correspondence from a leader of an Australian commune who was interested in the back-to-nature spiritual aspect of sourdough, from an Asian chef who was having some difficulty with his starter because of the high temperature in his location, and an Austrian food writer who sent us some Hungarian paprika in exchange for the starter.

And now, chances are, somewhere on Earth tomorrow morning, someone will make a loaf of bread (or pancakes or biscuits or coffee cake) with a sourdough starter brought west over the Oregon Trail in 1847 — all thanks to just one guy, puttering around on Usenet back in some of the earliest days of the user-friendly Internet, wondering if any fellow sourdough bakers wanted to try out his family’s very old sourdough starter.

[I just... I got something in my eye, okay? Don't look at me for a couple minutes.]

If you want to try Carl’s starter, simply send a self-addressed stamped envelope (or $1US) to the address listed on the Carl’s Friends site.

(Photo courtesy of LeJeune Whitney)