I was raised on fall clambakes. From as far back as I can remember, my family put on several clambakes every fall.
Over the years, my Grandpa Wurtz owned five Square Deal meat markets on the near west side of Cleveland. One day, a customer walked into the shop and told my Grandpa they were selling 50-foot lots in Avon Lake for $50 each. Grandpa drove out, took a look and purchased five lots on Woodstock Avenue. In 1922, he built a cottage in the middle of the five lots.
Every Labor Day, Grandpa would have a clambake. He had a shallow pit dug in the corner of the backyard which he filled with wood. The sides of the pit were made of stacked bricks and an iron grate was placed over them. On top of this large pit, he would place a huge, silver-metal square clam baker that had trays with holes in them that stacked inside it and a lid. There were probably 50 people attending for the day so you know how many bakes it held.
Some of Grandpa’s best friends came early to help prepare everything. The men sat around a huge tub and scrubbed the clams till they shined. My grandma and her lady friends, dressed in their best summer dresses with eyelet collars and cuffs, nylons, lace-up white oxford summer shoes and full aprons, were in the kitchen making clam chowder and finishing off apple, egg custard and peach pies. The clam chowder was started in a big pot on the stove. Potatoes, carrots, celery, corn, and chopped clams were cooked into a creamed chowder to have while waiting for the bake to steam.
Meanwhile, out in the yard, Grandpa was packing the bake. First went in the bagged clams all counted to 12. Back then they were middle-neck and hog heads for flavor and always on the bottom. Next the half-chickens, then corn and sweet potatoes, celery, sticks of butter and salt and pepper with one large sweet potato on top as the tester. One pint of water was added for each bake. The bake was basted all day and everyone took turns.
Often the men set up a card table and played pinochle. I remember crawling up on my Grandpa’s lap and taking a swig of his beer. To this day I always think of him when I drink a good Dortmund beer. The ladies sat in the shade and talked while crocheting and knitting. The yard contained a swing set, and badminton was set up, the horseshoe pits were cleared, and bottles of beer and assorted pop were set out in big galvanized tin pans full of ice.
Then the party began. The men played the games and we kids ran around like chickens. The cottage had an easement to the beach across Lake Road and some time during the day an adult would take us down to the lake for a swim.
Long homemade tables, sometimes slabs on sawhorses, were set up with benches around them. Table clothes and the white ironstone dishes brought out for clambakes were set around. Then it was time to eat. The first thing out of the bake was the broth served in Grandpa’s special white mugs. Out of the silver-colored pot came all this delicious food. The little ironstone saucers would be filled with butter and each of us got a bag of clams. We were in seventh heaven.
I didn’t care about any of the other food but can remember Mom fixing our plates with a little corn, potato and chicken. The only extra thing I can remember we ever added to the bake were fresh sliced tomatoes. Then we kids played with the clam shells.
Grandpa was the best at putting on a clambake, and they continued at his Lake House after he moved west of Route 83 in 1948. My dad became an expert too as he was always helping over the years. We had clambakes in our backyard for the neighbors almost every year.
Over the years, the baker has changed, become smaller and resembles a stacked roasting pan today. I still have my dad’s baker. It must be 60 years old. I still pack my own clambake just like Grandpa and Dad. It is really so easy to pack a good bake. The big thing to remember is only a pint of water per bake. You are steaming the bake, not boiling it.
Oh, what wonderful memories I have.
I am the Historian for the Bay Village Historical Society, member and Past President, 1976. Lived in the village since 1936. I was part of a team that developed the Cahoon farmhouse into Rose Hill Museum in 1973. I participated by inventoring the Cahoon items and serving as the first Accessions Chairman and as a Docent at the museum for 20 years. I was part of the committee that brought the Osborn house to Cahoon Memorial Park in 1995 and turned it into a learning center. Along with my sister, Gay Menning, and the society, we wrote the 'Bay Way of Life' history book in 1974. When Ginny Peterson asked for my help, I offered my historical pictures and wote the captions for the Arcadia picture book, Bay Village, published in 2007.