Any visit with my grandmother begins the same way. My Nony, 93, kisses me hello. I hand her a donut. Within seconds, the donut is gone. Without teeth, this little woman devours my offering. Now we may conduct our visit.
Donuts are a form of familial currency and more: they serve as witnesses to celebratory moments, provide sustenance and act as trusted allies in many Somerville families like my own.
They lurk deliciously in the background in many of our fondest memories and life lessons: If you stay awake during church, you might just have the pep to snag the best donut at coffee hour. Don’t know what to bring to a party? Donuts can be breakfast, appetizer or dessert. They jive with some old-time New England sense of enjoying mornings and small decadences. If you grew up in New England, chances are you were woken as a child by your mother, announcing, quietly and then not so quietly, “Time to make the donuts!”
Why donuts? Why do they tug at the hearts and stomachs of Somervillians? “Donuts are cheap and delicious. They’re a breakfast staple here,” notes SCATV’s Greater Somerville co-host and man-about-town Joe Lynch. An investigation into the historical context and the growth of the donut in America reveals that donuts are more than just vessels of temporary satisfaction – they have witnessed the growth of the city just as we have. If you look closely, the history of Somerville is sprinkled with these sweet treats.
Rise of the Donut
Some form of donut (or doughnut) concoction has existed throughout much of human history. Most sources credit the Dutch with bringing the donut to America in the form of “oliekoecken” (oil cakes). Captain Hanson Gregory is often cited as the first to puncture a hole in the donut in the 1840s, ridding it of its uncooked center. In 1920, a Russian expatriate, Adolph Levitt, created the first automated doughnut machine, a version of which was featured at the 1934 World’s Fair.
Since World War I, more than 20 donut shops or bakeries specializing in donuts have operated in Somerville, not including chains such as Dunkin’ Donuts. The exact date of the donut’s entrance into Somerville is unknown, but it’s likely that its prevalence in the city was an indirect result of World War I when “doughnut lassies,” women serving in the Salvation Army, fed donuts to soldiers, or “doughboys,” as they were nicknamed. The “original doughnut girl,” Brigadier Stella Young, a resident of nearby Chelsea, became a local hero, immortalized in the song “My Donut Girl.” The war, deeply felt by Somerville, saw many young men serve, including the wartime hero and doughboy, George Dilboy, who posthumously received a Medal of Honor and whose name marks many sites around the city.
One of the first listings of a shop exclusively marketing donuts in the city appeared in 1930 for Downy Flake Doughnut Shop, located at 291 Broadway and owned and operated by Daniel Miller & Edmund S. Hamblin. In 1933, an unnamed donut shop and its accompanying donut maker machinery were listed for sale on Garfield Street. During the Second World War, a new generation of “Doughnut Dollies” served Somerville soldiers, and those returning home were greeted with the establishment of new neighborhood donut shops.
Founded as Open Kettle by William Rosenberg in 1948, Dunkin’ Donuts quickly expanded from its first location in Quincy. One of the first Dunkins to open in Somerville was at 76 Middlesex Ave. opposite the Ford automotive plant. Within a little more than a decade, the Boston Telephone Directory listed nine Dunkins in the city area, including the Somerville location.
Other donuts shops in Boston emerged, such as Donut Chef, Donuts Please, the Doughnut Corporation of America and Mister Donut, the popular chain and Dunkin’ competitor started by Rosenberg’s former partner, Harry Winokur, in 1956. Shops such as Mike’s Donuts in Everett, Kane’s Donuts in Saugus and Twin Donuts in Allston became popular “destination” donut shops for Somervillians. By the 1950s, the demand for donuts was increasing and Somerville served as a microcosm for the donut eating world. The culture of the donut was emerging. They were a source of pride associated with wartime victory and the luck of having an extra nickel in one’s pocket. The Suffolk Downs horse race results from 1950 to 1970 reveal a host of racing horses with donut-related names: Speedy Donut, Lucky Donut, Fortune Donut and Stormy Donut. Job advertisements for “Donut Girl” and “Donut Man” littered the newspapers’ classifieds.
Like the city itself, donuts have experienced their fair share of run-ins with unsavory characters. From Winter Hill Gang members to corrupt politicians, Somerville donuts have seen them all. Extended business hours and coffee on hand made shops ideal locations for “business meetings,” as well as congregating thieves and delinquent youths. Somerville newspapers ran articles with headlines like “Man Splits Dunkin’ Donuts, Carrying off Dough,” “Gang Members Arrested at Dunkin’ Donuts,” “Coffee Jockeys in Hot Water,” “Alleged Dealers Intercepted on the way to Dunkies” and “A Genuine Coffee Break,” referring to a robbery at the Middlesex Avenue Dunkin’. Maybe this just meant that donut shops, and donuts, were something universally enjoyed and accessible, by criminals as well as cops.
Donut Shop Memories
On any given lunch break in the mid-’50s, my school-aged mother could be found racing from St. Polycarp’s School and hopping an unfinished chain link fence to get the last bag of “stalies” (day-old donuts) from the neighborhood donut shop before another child, sent out on the same task by his or her family, could nab them. “No stalies, no lunch,” being the understood rule. That donut shop, Johnson Donut Co., located at 530 Mystic Ave., was nestled in the middle of the Mystic Housing Projects (now known as the Mystic River Development) and catered to the Project community and the truckers who passed by on Route 93. Johnson Donut was known for its huge, dimpled jelly donuts coated in granulated sugar, its “double-dipped” oblong coconut donuts and its lemon sticks. In 1956, possibly due to the “daily stalie races,” Alderman Walter B. MacDonald asked the city to repair the cyclone fence bordering the property of Johnson Donut, citing the same fence my mother hopped as “a menace to the safety of the children in the Project.” Johnson Donut eventually closed after several fires and became the site of the short-lived Donut Chef.
Donuts inspired such regional loyalties that your favorite donut often depended upon the neighborhood you lived in. For residents of the Mystic Housing Projects, the choice was clear: Johnson Donuts. In the 1980s, those bordering the Charlestown line near Sullivan Station favored the chocolate coconut donut at Donut Maker. Ball Square had Linda’s Doughnut Shop and Lyndell’s. The length of Broadway was littered with shops such as Diane’s Doughnuts while the Teele Square crowd would cross into Cambridge for Verna’s. Powder House Circle’s Prince Donut was known for its oversized treats with “jimmies.” Resident Anna Raphael recalls her nephew frequenting Prince weekly. “They had the big cream-filled ones,” she notes. The donut shop, located at 868 Broadway next to Loud’s Candy, later became Prince Diner before closing. And of course, Dunkin’ has many loyal fans.
Years after the shop’s opening, countless travelers on the Minuteman Bike Path would find themselves lured from their athleticism to “the secret donut factory,” Russ’ Donuts, on 2 Upland Rd. Vincent M. Drago, a lifelong resident, fondly remembers walking as a kid to Russ’ for his favorite jelly donut after playing in Lexington Park. “You walked to the side door and someone just handed you a donut. I don’t even remember there being money exchanged,” says Drago.
Joe Lynch recalls not the visual, but the olfactory. “The smell coming from that donut place [Russ’] was superb. You’d walk by and be completely overtaken by it.” Lynch adds, “Cara Donna Bakery had delicious donuts for a short period and Lyndell’s used to have a honey-dipped that was to die for.” Lyndell’s, which opened in Ball Square in 1887, still serves its homemade donuts, including my own favorite chocolate-frosted cake-style donut.
Other bakeries in the city’s history noted for their sweet treats include Patsy’s and Winter Hill Bakery, both on Broadway and Garden Court Bakery on Somerville Avenue. For packaged donuts and cake-related creations, city youths could bicycle over to Apollo Cake factory in East Somerville or “the Hostess Cupcake factory on Lowell Street,” recalls Lynch.
My name is Gabi Gage and I’m here to talk about donuts,” I announce meekly, holding the PA system mic during the Friday afternoon Bingo session at the Holland Street Center of the Somerville Council on Aging. I quickly realize that the absence of donuts on my person was perhaps a mistake for someone trying to get people to talk about them.
I’m joined at my table by a group of longtime residents and life-long donut aficionados. Teresa Murphy has lived in Somerville for 53 years. “Everyone loves donuts. I still brings donuts down to my children who live in Peabody,” she says.
She is joined in the discussion by Anna Raphael, a Somerville resident for 82 years. Another 70 year resident of Somerville (name undisclosed) recalls buying Dunkins “for the kids” on the weekend. Lemon-filled and raisin crullers are named as some of their all-time favorites and Verna’s as their favorite shop. While the women admit they’ve had to cut back on donuts through the years, they do share tales of legendary donut eaters who somehow made donuts their fountain of youth: There was “Evelyn” who always purchased a dozen plain donuts. “She would eat those donuts every day. And you know what, that Evelyn lived to be 90 years old,” says Murphy, nodding.
Another donut-downing legend, “Geri,” had a taste for the donuts from the now-closed supermarket chain, Johnnie’s Foodmaster. Raphael shares, “She would go to Johnnie’s to get a dozen donuts. But she’d cut them in half and put them in the fridge. She’d eat half a donut every day for as long as I can remember. How can you eat just half a donut?” asks Raphael. As I leave the Holland Street Center, Raphael says, “All this talk of donuts, now I’ve got to have one.” I couldn’t agree more.
Friday, June 7 was National Donut Day, created in 1938 by the Salvation Army to honor the aforementioned “doughnut girls.” Dunkin’ Donuts offered a free donut with the purchase of a beverage. Over at the newest donut shop in town, Union Square Donuts, I watched as the 11 a.m. rush began and a flood of people braved the spring downpours. “It’s donut day! We’re here for donuts,” one customer shouted. Union Square Donuts unveiled a special one-day donut to celebrate the holiday — a take on the “old-fashioned,” a buttermilk cake-style donut with a sugar glaze. The shop prepared more than 900 donuts for the day. Though not natives, the same passion for donuts and donut-inspired memories unites owners Josh Danoff and Heather Schmidt with longtime residents, placing Union Square Donuts perfectly in the donut-ography of the city. “I grew up in New England so I love donuts. Nothing beats a good old warm, fresh cider donut. Just thinking of it brings back so many memories,” says Schmidt.
While donuts’ reputation has taken some hits in recent years, with people going so far as to call their pure fat and sugar mixture “unhealthy,” 2013 has seen a resurgence of donut interest. “The response has been so positive… Our customers are patient, excited and just so happy to eat donuts,” adds Schmidt.
Bob Barress and his two children, Robert, 12, and Mimi, 15, ventured out in the rain to partake in the festivities and snack on different donuts while they waited for the next batch of their favorite — the maple bacon donut — to be ready. “They are worth the damage they do,” chuckles Barress. As I share the story of my grandmother-donut-ritual with Danoff, he gives a thoughtful smile and says, “If donuts were the worldwide currency, there’d probably be less war.” The idea of donuts as harbingers of peace seems to fit just as perfectly as another well-known but contrasting image of donuts fueling US soldiers into victory during the two World Wars.
Years after its post-war explosion in popularity, the donut is still a beloved member of many Somerville families. A 10-cent donut in the 1960s is now on average 99 cents at a Dunkin’ or between $3 – $3.50 for an artisanal donut like those at Union Square. A report published by the Scout in 2012 investigated the number of Dunkin’ Donuts within the city limits and found that inside its modest 4.1-square miles, Somerville houses 13 Dunkin’ Donuts — about three Dunkins per square mile. Even the recently opened Bronwyn offers its take on the donut, a lemon raspberry donut with chocolate sauce, called a “Berliner.” Donuts continue to watch the city evolve. They serve as a bridge between the city’s past and its future, tying their tastes and smells to our significant memories and fond recollections.
As for my grandmother, she prefers a jelly donut or a good, old-fashioned cruller. Perhaps they give her a sugary glimpse of her youth, transporting her to a different time and place. Donuts, with their smells and tastes, have a way of helping us enjoy the present while circling us back to the past. –Photos by Shef Reynolds
This story appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Somerville. Get your copy here.
Below is an interactive map of the different donut shops and sellers throughout the history of Somerville. Dunkin’ Donuts are in red, all others in blue.
View Somerville Donuts in a larger map