I grew up in the Midwest, 750 miles away from this small southeast Georgia town, but I’ve known the name Claxton since I was a kid. Every December, my mom would buy Claxton Fruit Cake, with the famous horse and buggy label on the package.
My sister recalls the Christmas that my mom soaked it in rum. She says that I got all giddy from the alcohol-laced cake and fell off my chair when Cousin Joe started talking about a buddy of his named Roach. That prompted my mom to shout to my dad, “Dickie, take that slice away from her!” I have no recollection of this, so maybe I really was soused on high-proof Claxton cake (though even clear heads must admit that Roach is a ridiculous name).
Claxton was on my mind during a recent drive to the Georgia coast when the GPS showed it to be a mere 10 miles south of I-16. I simply could not pass up the chance to visit the home of such a storied food of my youth.
Dale Parker, who runs Claxton Bakery with older brothers Mid and Paul, was happy to walk with me down memory lane.
It all began with Italian immigrant Savino Tos. A pastry maker by trade, Tos arrived in New York in 1907, but moved to Macon for a job at an ice cream manufacturer. When the company shut down, Tos decided to stick around. He chose Claxton, because the small farming community didn’t have a bakery. When he set up shop in 1910, he sold baked goods and ice cream. When fall came around, he added fruitcake.
Dale Parker’s father, Albert Parker, began working for Tos when he was 11 years old. Parker said that his dad spent “just about his whole life here,” and he wasn’t exaggerating. Young Albert would go to the shop before and after school. When Tos retired in 1945, he took over the business.
It was just after World War II that Claxton Bakery began specializing in what has become its calling card. Bread and ice cream were being mass-produced and sold in grocery stores, cutting into the bakery’s bottom line.
“Dad decided (that) to survive, he had to specialize. The rest is history,” said Dale Parker, who started working for his father in 1974 and took over with his brothers and sister, Betty (now retired), when their father died in 1995.
Only minor tweaks have been made to that original recipe for a 1-pound loaf that is 70% fruit and nuts by weight, but the business model has changed with the times.
In the 1950s, fundraisers drove sales. These days, there are plenty of online sales (with free postal service shipping in the U.S.), but big-box chains are the biggest customers.
As Parker explained it, in order to sell to such stores, the bakery has to be certified as a Safe Quality Food (SQF) facility, which places a high priority on food safety and quality control. That’s the reason why charter buses no longer stop for a tour of the production facility.
The cake-making ramps up in September, when 110 employees are added to the payroll, and 400 pounds of batter gets poured into baking pans every 2 minutes, maxing out at 60,000 pounds a day.
But, fruitcake aficionados still can visit the retail shop in front. There are stacks of fruitcakes — both the original “regular” and the “dark” flavor with molasses and extra spice, which is a hit with Canadians, Parker said.
And, there’s the relatively new ClaxSnax — a 20-pack box of individually wrapped 1.5-ounce slices. Parker sent me home with a box (stocking stuffers!), and with chocolate-covered fruitcake nuggets (delish!), which also didn’t exist when I was a kid.
I’m in good company as a Claxton supporter. Mickey Mantle was a patron. So was Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famed pediatrician. Hanging in Parker’s office is a framed 1969 letter from J. Edgar Hoover thanking Albert Parker for sending the cakes at the behest of Assistant FBI Director C.D. DeLoach, a Claxton native. And, orders came from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the Johnson, Carter and Clinton administrations.
It’s interesting that President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered from Claxton, considering that there’s a pretty big fruitcake maker in his home state of Texas. Folks who binge-watch the Netflix hit series “Cheer,” which follows a nationally ranked cheer team, will recognize the name Corsicana. But, that north Texas city also is home to Collin Street Bakery, and Corsicana claims the same distinction as the one declared on the water tower across the street from Claxton Bakery: fruitcake capital of the world.
The competing claim doesn’t bother Dale Parker one bit.
“Great family-operated company. They make a great fruitcake,” he said of Collin Street. “We know those folks really well. They kind of bounce ideas off us sometimes, and we bounce ideas off them. It’s a friendly competition. The way we look at it is, there’s enough business out there for both companies.”
Parker is pretty proud of the business his dad built. He loves it when, after telling a stranger where he works, the person replies, “Oh, you’re the fruitcake guys.”
Fruitcake has been Parker’s life. But, he said, he never tires of eating a slice. He prefers his chilled, and recommends it with whipped cream or ice cream.
Parker also has come to the conclusion that fruitcake dissenters don’t really hate fruitcake; they just haven’t had a good one yet, one that’s chock-full of nuts and fruit, and with a nice, moist crumb.
His answer to those folks: “Just try mine.”
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