Sutter’s Fort, Sacramento


Sutter’s Fort is a Sacramento landmark. (Hang in there – I promise to get to the food part!) If you’re from Sacramento, it’s likely you’ve seen or visited Sutter’s Fort because, well, it’s pretty hard to miss! Located at 27th and L Streets, it’s the great, big, white, rustic, low-slung fortress that takes up two city blocks. And, there are often people dressed in 1840s fashions that hang around and weave cloth, shoot cannons, and make candles.

If you’ve not had the Sutter’s Fort experience yet, then you must go! You’re missing a true gem. And, if you’re a parent of a soon-to-be 4th grade child, look into the Environmental Living Program that is offered at Sutter’s Fort. There is no better way to learn California history.

Recently, as part of my son’s 4th grade California history curriculum, I donned my own gray frock and mustard-colored cape, stoked the fires of the beehive oven, churned butter and experienced what it was really like to live and work at Sutter’s Fort in the 1840s. Admittedly, I felt some apprehension: Coffee from a tin pot? No iPhone? Sleeping on a rough wooden floor? And did I already mention the, um, lovely gray frock? Despite the lack of modern conveniences, or perhaps because of them, we all experienced the wonder of stepping back in time.

My husband and I were placed in charge of the large outdoor beehive oven made primarily of adobe brick that those who worked for Captain John Sutter used for baking. Our mission was to heat the oven the good old-fashioned way – with wood, no temperature gauge – so we could later bake bread, cinnamon rolls and gingersnap cookies for everyone to eat. No pressure! In addition, we needed to churn enough butter for the day.

Let me start with the butter, which was the less complicated task. All you really need is a stone churn, a pint of heavy cream, some cheesecloth, a pitcher (for the buttermilk) and a wooden bowl and paddle (to work and rinse the butter). After 15-20 minutes of churning, you’ll be rewarded with the most delicious butter you’ve ever tasted, plus fresh buttermilk.  An 1840s tip: Let the cream sit out overnight to bring it to room temperature.

The 4th graders, guided by our own 1840s bakery moms, Donna and Cindy, crafted fresh bread dough, cinnamon rolls and cookies (recipe below). Our job was not to burn all of their hard work, and we did luck out in that category. The beehive oven, after much coddling, heated to a nice even temperature and baked everything to perfection.

Maybe you won’t have an opportunity real soon to step back and experience 1840s Sacramento, but you can definitely create a little of it in your own kitchen!

Gingersnaps (courtesy of Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park)

¾ cup margarine
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons molasses
1 egg
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground ginger
Bowl of sugar for topping

Cream margarine and sugar. Stir in molasses and egg. Sift together dry ingredients and beat into shortening mixture until smooth. Cool dough. Shape into 1” balls and roll in bowl of sugar. Place on greased cookie sheet 2” apart.

Bake at 375 degrees for 8-12 minutes, depending on desired texture of cookie (soft or crispy).

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Julie | Mar 12, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    I’ve been dying to see these pictures…such a cool school project! And for the record, I think you rocked that gray frock!

  • Rachel | Mar 12, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    This seems like it would have been a lot of fun. My question is this. Did they actually have margarine in the 1840s or would it have been better to use butter?

  • Monica | Mar 13, 2010 at 11:55 am

    I LOVE the photos. Anna had a blast at Sutter’s Fort last year, but let’s just say the food wasn’t the most memorable part. Maybe if you’d been there, we’d have eaten prairie gourmet 🙂

  • Maria | Mar 15, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Rachel — Thanks for your comment! Your question was my question, too. No, they did not have margarine in the 1840s — they would have had to use butter or lard. I did find out from our bakery moms that the Sutter’s Fort docent (and the official recipe) both specify margarine. They may have found that it yields better results, given the beehive oven temperature fluctuations.

  • Lorie | Apr 13, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    My son will be up at Sutter’s Fort next week and my husband is in charge of the bakery (bread, cinnamon rolls, and cookies). We are expecting approximately 180 people for dinner (means bread for this many people). How many people did you have for dinner at the fort and how many loaves of bread did you end up baking? Did you bake any ahead of time? Thank you!

  • Maria | Apr 15, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Hi Lorie — We planned for 70 people, far less than what you’re expecting! As far as bread, we baked 16 loaves on-site and made 16 ahead of time. We had plenty! In fact, we never even ate the 16 we brought. We also made two batches of cinnamon rolls on-site and brought 2 batches with us (already baked). We premade the cookie dough and just baked it on-site. This took some pressure off of us on the day-of.

    Are you planning on churning butter, too? The kids had a lot of fun with this. The key is to leave the cream out overnight, so it’s room temp when you churn it. We made 7 batches of butter, which was plenty.

    Good luck — it’s a great time!

  • carla | Jun 29, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Do you have the recipe for the brown bread that is made at the fort? PLEASE let me know, I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find it. Thanks, Carla

  • Maria | Jun 30, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Carla — Thanks for your question. If you follow the link below (and scroll down a bit), you’ll find the official recipe for Sutter’s Fort bread. It’s really delicious. Enjoy!