Echoes of the Oven: The Legacy of Nicetown Freihofer's Bakery


A wide view of the desolate remains of an industrial complex, characterized by broken windows, graffiti-covered walls, and overgrowth of weeds. A rusted water tower stands sentinel in the background, symbolizing the site's former vitality. The expansive concrete ground shows cracks and scattered debris, hinting at the area's history and abandonment.


Six years ago, I embarked on an exploratory journey through the forgotten corridors of a place whose name was unknown to me then. Only recently, with a bit of help, I unraveled the mystery: this place, archived in my memory and on my hard drive, was the Freihofer Baking Company. This discovery rekindled a special connection in my heart, remembering my early days in urban exploration in Philadelphia. It was here that I first tasted the thrill of exploring abandoned buildings, a passion that soon had me crossing state lines in search of that exhilarating, novel feeling once more.


The neighborhood surrounding the Freihofer Baking Company was a stark canvas of socio-economic hardship, a desolate space that spoke volumes of its forgotten glory. I remember vividly the day I ventured there. Agile and swift, I maneuvered over a wall of large rectangular stones – a barrier against scrappers seeking to plunder valuable metals. These stones were a gateway to the past, leading me to the nearest open entrance of the forsaken structure.


Inside, an eerie sensation gripped me. The unexpected sound of rushing water was my only companion, heightening my senses as I explored solo. With a camera slung around my neck, I was acutely aware of every sound and shadow. The property, though abandoned, bore signs of recent interference. A water pump, set up by someone unknown, churned tirelessly, evacuating water from one of the buildings. I stumbled upon a vast pool of water, its clarity and motion suggesting a recent burst, starkly contrasting the stagnant neglect around it.








In the heart of Philadelphia lies a neighborhood, once the cradle of industrial vibrancy, now cloaked in neglect and danger. This transformation is starkly symbolized by the crumbling edifices of factories that once pulsed with activity. Among them, the Freihofer Baking Company at Twentieth and Indiana Streets is a silent witness to the city's changing tides. Hidden behind its decaying walls is a history rich with industry and community, now overshadowed by the prevailing crime and poverty.


The Freihofer Baking Company, barely distinguishable from its desolate industrial neighbors, holds the remnants of a significant past within its dilapidated structure. This building, a patchwork of additions and expansions, speaks of a time when the neighborhood thrived with the hum of factory work, and employees lived just a stone's throw away. The original edifice, now lost under new construction, demolition, and natural overgrowth layers, is a mosaic of Philadelphia's industrial legacy. Peering behind the random brick walls, the concrete appendages, the wild growth, and the graffiti, one can still sense the nostalgia that permeates the air. This place was once a portal into a vibrant era where the identity of Philadelphia was intricately tied to its diverse neighborhoods. In those days, the air was filled with the aroma of freshly baked goods, personally delivered by bakers in their horse-drawn bread trucks.




As you can see in the 1910 Philadelphia Atlas, a railroad line actually ran below W Clearfield St across the entire property leading all the way across N 20th St into the neighboring land they occupied. The presence of a railroad line directly servicing the baking operation indicates the scale and importance of the direct delivery of flour, sugar, yeast, and other raw materials essential for baking, ensuring the operation's efficiency and productivity.




It's challenging today, amid the present-day landscape of the neighborhood, to conjure the image of the Freihofer Baking Company in its prime. The factory, once surrounded by lush wheat fields and bustling horse stables, now starkly contrasts its current surroundings. The story of the Freihofer Baking Company is not just one of industrial evolution but also of visionary entrepreneurship and innovative business practices. The Freihofer brothers, with their keen business acumen, revolutionized the bakery industry of their time through a simple yet ingenious delivery system. Their approach, centered around horse-and-wagon deliveries, transformed how Philadelphians received their daily bread.


In an era when most city dwellers walked to their local bakeries for fresh bread, the Freihofer’s delivery system was a game-changer. By incorporating hot metal in their delivery wagons, they ensured that their products arrived at doorsteps hot and fresh, a luxury in those times. Customers, delighted by this novel service, simply had to display the company's alert flag – a symbol received upon their first delivery – to continue enjoying this convenience. This service was a novelty and a reflection of the company's commitment to quality and customer satisfaction. The early success of their delivery system led to rapid expansion. The Freihofers extended their operations, acquiring more property for wheat fields and stables, stretching from Twenty-first Street to Clearfield. By 1909, Charles Freihofer confidently proclaimed their ambitions to the press, envisioning the Nicetown property as the "largest bakery in the world." This wasn't mere hyperbole; the brothers invested nearly $200,000 – a colossal sum at the time – to transform their modest business into a sprawling, mechanized food production empire.








This expansion was marked by technological advancements, including sanitary ovens, roller beds, and industrial-sized electric dough mixers, all requiring substantial electricity. They even built their own electrical generating plant, fed by coal from the Reading's line. This growth necessitated the final expansion of their delivery system, culminating in the construction of what was then the world's largest horse stable building. This massive structure, accommodating over 350 horses and 160 wagons, also housed wagon repair and horseshoeing facilities. In the early 20th century, the Freihofer Baking Company realized but exceeded the ambitious dreams of its founders. The business, initially concentrated within the colossal bakery on Master Street, soon expanded its footprint far beyond its Philadelphia roots. The Freihofer brothers, Charles and William, demonstrated a remarkable ability to blend innovative baking practices with astute business expansion, propelling their company into a new era of growth and prosperity.


By 1913, the company's success had led William Freihofer to venture north to Troy, New York, where he opened another large baking plant. This expansion clearly indicated the company's soaring ambitions and growing influence. By 1914, the Freihofer enterprise was a bustling hub of activity, employing nearly a thousand workers across its two central locations. This expansion continued unabated into the 1920s, with the addition of a third location at Fifty-second and Florence Streets in West Philadelphia, further extending their reach to Chester and Wilmington. The company's growth was in more than just physical locations. Under William's direct and almost intrusive solicitation, the Freihofers secured contracts to supply bread to the finest restaurants in town, including the bustling new establishments in the Reading Railroad Terminal. This feat not only solidified the company's standing in the food industry but also interwove the Freihofer name into the fabric of Philadelphia's dining culture.


While Charles focused on baking, William leveraged his financial acumen to diversify the company's interests. Despite concerns about his divided attention due to his involvement with several other businesses, William remained a faithful steward of the family business. His leadership roles extended beyond the bakery, as he also served as the president of the Northwestern Trust Company at Ridge and Columbia Avenues. In 1916, the company welcomed a new generation of leadership, with William's son, Stanley Freihofer, joining the ranks. Stanley's ascension to managerial roles marked the continuation of the Freihofer legacy as he shouldered increasing responsibilities within the company.


Under the guidance of the Freihofer brothers and Stanley, the company dominated the Philadelphia market and reached unprecedented profitability. The Freihofers were more than just successful businessmen; they were influential figures in the Gilded Age, wielding considerable clout in city affairs, both political and social. Their involvement in various aspects of Philadelphia life made the Freihofers a household name, synonymous with the city's culture and progress. The Freihofer story, thus, is not just a tale of a successful business but a narrative of ambition, expansion, and influence that left an indelible mark on the city's history.









As the First World War ushered in an era of industrial fervor in Philadelphia, the Freihofer Baking Company rose to the occasion, aligning its operations with the nation's wartime needs. In an era marked by rationing and shortages, the company introduced the "Liberty Loaf," a product that not only adhered to the stringent wartime standards but also carried the unique distinction of being the only bread endorsed by the War Department. The challenge of producing bread under wartime restrictions was significant. The common belief was that reducing critical ingredients like butter would make a bland, unappealing product. However, the Freihofers demonstrated their culinary ingenuity by masterfully balancing the government's requirements with their commitment to quality. They managed to retain enough dairy in their recipe to maintain the standard taste that their customers had come to expect, a feat that was both impressive and essential during these trying times.


To maximize the impact of their new product, the Freihofer Baking Company embarked on a massive advertising campaign across local newspapers and magazines. This campaign was more than just a marketing strategy; it was a rallying cry for the community to support the war effort. The company utilized its voluntary agreement with the War Department as a cornerstone of its advertisements, urging customers to "save a slice of bread a day" by choosing the Liberty Loaf. This initiative by the Freihofers was a testament to their commitment to their business and their country. The Liberty Loaf became a symbol of patriotism, a way for ordinary citizens to contribute to the war effort from the home front. The Freihofer Baking Company, through its innovative response to wartime challenges, demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and thrive, even in the face of adversity. Their contribution to the war effort, encapsulated in the Liberty Loaf, is a noteworthy chapter in the company's history, highlighting their role as bakers, patriots, and innovators.


The Freihofer Baking Company, a name synonymous with quality baked goods and innovation, is rooted in the entrepreneurial spirit of Charles F. Freihofer, the son of a German immigrant. The exact beginnings of the family bakery, whether in Philadelphia around 1884 or across the Delaware River in Camden, N.J., in 1899, are shrouded in historical ambiguity. However, what remains clear is Charles and his brother William's pivotal role in shaping the bakery's destiny.


Charles and his three sons — Charles C., Edwin, and Frank — worked diligently to grow the business. Meanwhile, William started a local milk route at the tender age of thirteen and brought his expertise in speedy delivery systems to the family bakery in 1890. His innovations in fast delivery transformed how the bakery's goods were distributed across the area. In 1893, the bustling enterprise was renamed the Freihofer Vienna Baking Company, marking the beginning of a significant expansion.






March 12, 1913, marked a transformative chapter in the company's history with the establishment of the Freihofer Baking Company in Troy, New York, by William, Edwin, and Frank Freihofer. This venture in Troy was an instant success, and the construction of the Freihofer Bakery in Lansingburgh, the northern section of Troy, introduced groundbreaking technology with its seventy-foot-long traveling bread oven. This facility not only met the increasing demands of its customers but also became a symbol of the company's goodwill during a 1913 torrential downpour in Troy. In an extraordinary act of kindness, the bakery baked and distributed hundreds of loaves of bread to flood victims, demonstrating their commitment to community welfare.


As the company expanded from Lansingburgh, their delivery services, initially relying on horse-drawn wagons and later transitioning to motorized trucks, began offering a wide range of baked goods, including their famed chocolate chip cookies. The 1950s and 1960s saw the introduction of the Freddie Freihofer Show, a beloved television program that created memorable birthday experiences for young studio audience members, further endearing the brand to the public. By 1914, Frank Freihofer had constructed another plant in Schenectady, New York. By 1915, a third plant in Albany, New York, was operational, firmly establishing the Freihofer’s presence throughout the Capital Region. Not resting on its laurels, the Freihofer Baking Company continued to innovate, establishing the nation's first computerized bakery in 1984, a testament to their forward-thinking approach.


The Freihofer's story took another turn in 1911 when the brothers traveled through Troy, New York. Charles, struck by the sight of textile factories teeming with working women, identified a new customer base: women who lacked the time to bake their own bread. This insight led to the successful introduction of pan loaf white and French bread, sold for a nickel and delivered by horse-drawn wagons. The Troy branch celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013 and became a cornerstone of their expansion.





A vast, empty floor space in an abandoned factory, with a grid of sturdy columns rising to a ceiling crusted with peeling paint. The sense of desolation is enhanced by the sparse graffiti and the detritus scattered across the concrete floor, all bathed in the diffuse light from the factory doors.



The Freihofer delivery experience was more than just a transaction; it was a community event. The Freihofer man, with his horse-drawn wagon, would deliver hot, fresh bread before dawn and return later with cakes, specialty items like famous raspberry pies, and even fresh ground coffee. This practice fostered a sense of community, with residents often offering sugar cubes, apples, or carrots to feed the patiently waiting horses. The Freihofer Baking Company's journey through the 20th century is a story of tradition, community, and adaptability. The company's horse-drawn wagons became a familiar and beloved sight in the winter months, especially among children. They would often hitch a ride on their sleds, clinging to the back of the wagon as it made its leisurely way down the street. The horses, familiar with their routes, would lead the way, stopping at regular delivery points as the drivers walked alongside, delivering bread and treats to the waiting customers.


This picturesque scene, a hallmark of Freihofer's connection to the communities it served, continued until a significant shift on January 22, 1972. With the retirement of the company’s last routemen, the era of traditional truck delivery to homes was phased out. However, Freihofer’s influence and presence remained strong, especially in upstate New York and parts of New England. The company continued to supply bread and various treats and played a significant role in supporting community events. This included the Freihofer’s Run for Women, the Saratoga Jazz Festival, and the Melodies of Christmas, demonstrating its commitment to local communities.


Another notable chapter in the company's history began on November 21, 1949, with the debut of "The Freddie Freihofer Show" on WRGB Channel 6. Known for its segment "Breadtime Stories," the show became a beloved part of local television. Hosts like Ralph Kanna, Ed Joyce, Bud Mason, and notably "Uncle Jim Fisk," who became the face of the show from 1956 until its end in 1966, brought joy to many viewers. The show made history on February 20, 1965, when it became the first local television show to be broadcast in color, further cementing Freihofer's place in the cultural landscape.


An indoor expanse of an old factory flooded with shallow water, reflecting a worn interior punctuated by structural columns. Graffiti art and tags cover the walls, providing a stark contrast to the industrial decay. A lone flatbed trailer sits marooned on the concrete floor, adding to the scene's post-industrial desolation.



As the 20th century progressed, Freihofer expanded, opening branch bakeries beyond Philadelphia. By the end of World War II, these branches, equipped with modern facilities, began to outpace the production capacity of the original Nicetown facility, which eventually closed in 1956. As the neighborhood around the Twentieth and Indiana plant changed and the city's industries evolved, Freihofer's began to scale back its operations in Philadelphia. The company's facilities in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware were more productive post-World War II, leading to a gradual consolidation of its production facilities and business headquarters at the Troy plant, which remains operational today.


The story of Freihofer’s baking complex at Twentieth and Indiana is a poignant tale of industrial evolution and urban transformation. Once hailed as the largest bakery in the world, the complex, by 1956, was seen as antiquated in the face of modern industrial standards. Confined by the crowded industrial neighborhood and unable to expand, this nearly fifty-year-old icon of the baking industry closed its doors, marking the end of an era in Philadelphia's City of Brotherly Love. Two years later, the subsequent sale of the building symbolized a definitive shift in the company’s operations within Philadelphia. This change was mirrored by the neighborhood itself, which, in the 1960s, witnessed its final stages of "white flight." The departure of its long-standing residents to the suburbs left the area grappling with declining property values, escalating crime, and deepening poverty. These socio-economic changes encased the old baking factory in a milieu vastly different from its heyday.


The building's next chapter began in 1959 when a local textile company took over, transforming the space to accommodate rows of sewing tables, bustling with the activity of hundreds of local employees. This adaptation kept the building functional until the 1970s when it underwent another change of hands. By the 1990s, the building served a new purpose, housing arcade machines for rent and sale. As the century turned, its utility evolved, becoming a storage warehouse for various goods. Kelly’s Korner, a local supermarket chain, became its final tenant before the building was abandoned in 2003.


An expansive, derelict interior of a former industrial building, with rows of concrete columns and beams supporting the decaying ceiling. The area is marked by graffiti, dirt, and scattered debris, with natural light faintly illuminating the desolation and highlighting the building's forsaken state.




In a twist of irony, the dilapidated Freihofer building found a brief moment of fame in 2008, serving as a backdrop for a grisly murder scene in the film "Law Abiding Citizen." This cinematic moment was even more symbolic given the proximity of one of the country’s first motion picture studios, Lubinville, across the street. Established in 1910 by early filmmaker Sigmund Lubin, Lubinville was a square-block studio complex that tragically burned down four years later, destroying most of Lubin's flammable film stock. The history of the Freihofer Baking Company’s complex is a microcosm of broader industrial and urban changes. From a thriving bakery to a textile hub, an arcade machine warehouse, and finally, a film scene location, the building’s evolving uses reflect Philadelphia's shifting economic and social landscapes.


The Freihofer family's journey through the baking industry is a narrative of transition from a family-run business to a subsidiary of larger corporate entities. For over a century, descendants of the three founding brothers – Charles, William, and Edwin Freihofer – maintained control over the company, preserving its legacy and guiding its growth. However 1987, a significant shift occurred when Freihofer’s was sold to General Foods, marking the beginning of a new era. General Foods, in turn, sold Freihofer’s to Best Foods in New Jersey, a move that led to significant operational changes. All baking operations were relocated to two facilities in Albany, located on Prospect Avenue to streamline and consolidate production. These plants, the bread-making facility built in 1972 and the cake plant established in 1979, remain operational to this day, a testament to the enduring brand of Freihofer’s.


Despite the corporate transition, the Freihofer family maintained a presence in the company into the early 1990s, with family members Al, Wayne, and Chris involved until 1992. However, the familial ties that had long defined the company's ethos and operations gradually diminished. Eventually, all family connections were severed as the company underwent further corporate transitions, first sold to George Weston Bakeries and later to Bimbo Bakeries in 2009, becoming a subsidiary. Throughout these changes, the Freihofer bakeries, employing more than 700 people, continued to produce a wide range of baked goods. Their products, renowned for their quality and taste, were a staple in the local market and distributed extensively throughout New England, New York, and New Jersey.






Despite the shifts in ownership and the transition from a family-run enterprise to part of a larger corporate structure, Freihofer’s products have remained remarkably consistent. This consistency reflects the enduring legacy of the Freihofer brand, a name that has weathered the test of time and changing market dynamics. It is a testament to the company's commitment to quality, tradition, and customer satisfaction. These values have remained central to its identity through decades of change and growth.


The Freihofer Bakery and the Riverside Club, both landmarks in Troy's Lansingburgh section, represent significant chapters in American architectural and industrial history. Lansingburgh, the oldest village in America and once the home of Herman Melville, holds a special place in the nation’s cultural and historical fabric. The Freihofer Bakery, established in 1913, stood as a testament to the industrial legacy of Troy, having employed generations of residents. Meanwhile, the Riverside Club, built in 1895 in the Shingle style, was a social hub, hosting bowling and boating parties in its heyday. This architectural style, an American innovation that evolved from the late 19th century Queen Anne style, was prevalent from New England to Newfoundland, including Troy. The Freihofers later purchased the Riverside Club for their offices, recognizing its architectural significance and proximity to the bakery.


The preservation of these historic buildings became a cause championed by the Troy History Action Network, which fought a seven-year battle to save them. Their efforts, however, faced a significant setback on May 13, 2005, when the Troy Planning Commission declined to designate the buildings as landmarks. This decision was followed by a demolition permit application from the building's owner, a subsidiary of the George Weston Company. The ensuing legal battle saw a temporary stay granted by Judge James Canfield, acknowledging that demolitions could have environmental impacts that necessitated public hearings and state environmental quality reviews. Despite a year of legal proceedings, the New York State Appellate Court ultimately ruled in December 2006 that the Troy City Code did not require a demolition permit applicant to consider historical significance in their environmental quality review. This ruling, unfortunately, came too late, as Troy had already revised its code to require such a review, but it could not be applied retroactively.


An abandoned bakery corridor with crumbling brick walls and decaying pipes. Light streams in through tall, grimy windows, casting shadows on the debris-strewn floor. Peeling paint and graffiti hint at the passage of time and the building's forgotten stories.



The former Freihofer Bakery and the Riverside Club met their end on February 26, 2007, when they were demolished, and the site was eventually transformed into a Walgreens store, a stark contrast to the rich history they once embodied. Elsewhere, the former Freihofer Baking Company locations also underwent significant transformations. The site on 242 Spruce St in Albany, NY, was converted into an apartment building through a $6.5 million rehabilitation project. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia location at 3001 N 20th St was demolished in the fall/winter of 2022, with the demolition completed by April 2023.



Sources:


1. Freihofer Baking Company, Abandoned Online

2. Woodhall, Peter, "Lost Buildings of 2013-Part II," Hidden City Philadelphia, December 31, 2013

3. Buell, Bill, "Freihofer’s marking 100 years of popular baked goods and being a good neighbor," The Daily Gazette, March 10, 2013,

4. "Freihofer's Expands to Keep Pace with Big Bakers," NYTimes, July 11, 1981

5. Halloran, Amy, "Freihofer's Bakery", Dear Bread, October 9, 2020

6. Asbestos Job Sites, Freihofer Baking Company, Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC.

7. Kovar, Heather, "Abandoned mansion in Lansingburgh gutted by fire," CBS 6 Albany, November 6, 2019

8. Freihofer's - New York's Captial Region in 50 Objects, Albany Institute

9. Saying Goodbye to Freihofer by Don Rittner

10. "Former Freihofer Baking Co. Building Transformed into New Market-Rate Apartments," Capitalize Albany, October 27, 2023

11. Webster, J. (2014). Vanishing Philadelphia: Ruins of the Quaker City. United States: History Press.

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