The Grand River Historical Society Museum hosted an open house on Sunday, July 7, from 1 to 6 p.m., to introduce the museum’s new exhibit, A Slice of America. More than 200 people came to view the unveiling of the exhibit, featuring the world’s second bread-slicing machine, which is on an extended loan from the Smithsonian Institution.
Patrons included community members as well as family members of the two men — Otto Rohwedder and Frank Bench — who introduced commercially-sliced bread to the world on July 7, 1928, in Chillicothe.
The event began with words of welcome by Marvin Holcer, museum president, Chillicothe Mayor Chuck Haney and Pam Clingerman, museum curator.
Clingerman expressed her feelings of joy for the new exhibit and what a big success bringing the machine to Chillicothe would be for the town. Clingerman then introduced Alumna of the Smithsonian National Board Claudia Ream Allen, with whom Clingerman worked to bring the bread-slicer to Chillicothe.
Allen, a Chillicothe native, discussed her involvement with the Smithsonian and bringing the machine to Chillicothe, which she said was a two-year-long process. Tears of joy were shed as she discussed her pride in having the machine in the community that introduced sliced bread to the world.
Allen read a letter addressed to Clingerman from Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute Wayne Clough. The letter congratulated Clingerman and the museum directors on the new exhibition, and thanked them for helping the Smithsonian to share the story of the bread slicer.
“Reaching people everywhere is a cornerstone of the Smithsonian’s mission, and I am pleased that the people of Chillicothe, Missouri, will have access to this uniquely American treasure during the 85th anniversary of commercially sliced bread,” Clough wrote. “Smithsonian collections belong to us all, and I truly appreciate your efforts to help us share the story of American innovation and ingenuity.”
In a later interview, Allen said she was pleased to come back to her hometown to see this event.
“It's such a charming story,” Allen said. “It’s so American... everyone’s fascinated by the whole idea of it being here.”
Allen also introduced Catherine Stortz Ripley, news editor of the Constitution-Tribune, and said that Ripley’s dedication and efforts led to this exhibit.
“From the beginning to end — your research and dedication has led to this discovery,” Allen told Ripley. “Your shared knowledge has led to this exhibit — the culmination of your efforts as a star reporter.”
Ripley presented a slide show with the story of her discovery that sliced bread was invented in Chillicothe.
“Ten years ago, I never would have dreamed something like this would happen,” she said. “That’s because 10 years ago, we didn’t even know the pieces to this puzzle existed.”
Page 2 of 3 - She said that in 2001 she began researching the history of Livingston County for a history book for the Constitution-Tribune. While looking through newspaper microfilm, she discovered an article announcing the invention of sliced bread printed on July 6, 1928. The following day, the article stated, sliced bread would be available on store shelves.
This began Ripley’s process to discover details of the history of sliced bread.
She said that it wasn’t until after a Kansas City Star article written about Ripley’s findings circulated on the wire services in 2003 that details about sliced bread began to emerge. After seeing the article, a man from Minnesota sent Ripley a letter confirming that sliced bread was first put on the market in Chillicothe, and that he had employed the son of bread-slicer inventor Otto Rohwedder.
He supplied Ripley with contact information for Otto’s son, Richard Rohwedder, who was 88 at the time and living in Arkansas.
Within two weeks, Richard was in Chillicothe, sharing his father’s scrapbook that documented the birth of sliced bread in Chillicothe. This was Richard’s second visit to Chillicothe. The first time was in 1928 when he fed the first loaf of bread through his father’s bread-slicing machine at Frank Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company.
Rohwedder, a native of Davenport, Iowa, came up with the idea for a bread slicer in 1917, but because the building of the company manufacturing the machine caught fire, the creation of the machine was delayed until 1928.
It is uncertain how Rohwedder and M.F. “Frank” Bench first became acquainted, but the two had collaborated in 1926 to patent a bread display rack to be used in grocery stores.
Following Ripley’s presentation was the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the entrance to the exhibits. Christine Bryers, granddaughter of Otto Rohwedder, and Carmen Burgett, great-niece of Bench, each held one handle of the scissors as they cut the ribbon, marking the opening of the exhibit. Spectators lined up to see the exhibit, witnessing the bread-slicer.
“It’s just a real good feeling,” Burgett, of Holt, Mo., said. “I remember going down to the bakery and my uncle (Frank’s nephew) worked there. I’d go down there and get some bread.”
Bryers, of Louisville, Ky., said that she was surprised how much the machine looked like it did in her family’s photographs. “It's a sense of pride, and surprise,” Bryers said. “I think it’s the perfect place for it. I think it’s great for the community, it’s great for the country, because things need to be where they started.”
Bryers said that she knew very little about her grandfather’s invention.
Page 3 of 3 - “It wasn’t until my father had grandchildren that... we started finding out that my grandfather actually did invent a bread slicing machine. My dad didn’t talk about it that much. I don’t know whether that was because they lost the patent and the Depression came. My grandfather never mentioned it — I never heard him mention it.”
The bread-slicing machine on loan from the Smithsonian is the second one ever put to use. That was at Korn’s Bakery in Davenport, Iowa, in 1928, and after Chillicothe’s installation.
Allen stated that the exhibit’s unveiling Sunday was not about just celebrating the day.
“It’s about our past, shaping our future,” she said. “To have something as important from an institution like the Smithsonian sitting in the middle of this museum is really spectacular.”
Light refreshments were offered to guests. The exhibit remained open until 6 p.m., and nearly 300 guests came throughout the day to view the bread-slicer.
Clingerman said the turnout was more than they expected, and it was a “very big success,” she said.
“I think we’ll get a lot more visitation, and maybe a little more town pride... it’s going to be great for the community,” Clingerman stated.
A Slice of America is scheduled to reside in the museum for three years. The Grand River Historical Society Museum offers free admission, and is open weekly on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.