Courtesy of the Cracker House Project
Frank L. Sommer lived here, just blocks away from his bakery that made the Premium Saltine cracker famous. The bakery has been adapted for reuse; his house has not.
By Winn Duvall
Feeling under the weather isn’t fun for anyone. But American tradition has shown that chicken noodle soup makes things a little better, and no soup is complete without some saltine crackers. The crispy, salty snack that complements soups, salads, and cheeses but tastes great on its own is one of Missouri’s contributions to the world.
The Frank L. Sommer house in St. Joseph, more widely known by its nickname, the Cracker House, was owned by the man that invented then Premium Saltine cracker. It sits two blocks from where his bakery, the Sommer-Richardson Baking Company, once sat. However, unlike the chocolate chip cookie, Jell-O, and SPAM, which all have their own museums, the saltine cracker’s origins have not been preserved.
After decades of disuse and a title tied up with an out-of-state owner, the Cracker House landed on the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation’s Most Endangered Property list in 2012 and again in 2013.
The city of St. Joseph had plans to demolish the old home, but when resident Jennifer Baxter- Higgs took an interest in the property, preservation efforts began.
“This is a huge part of American history, not just St. Joseph history,” Jennifer says. “It’s really the best of Americana.”
In 2011 she presented a strategic plan to the city to gain support for preservation and illuminate the house’s historical significance. Since then, The Cracker House Project, a nonprofit, formed with Jennifer at the head.
The Cracker House Project has pursued sponsorships from large companies such as Nabisco and HGTV, but that has proven difficult. Despite this, Jennifer and others have experienced a great deal of support from the community. In fact, they were given an invaluable gift for the preservation effort from a St. Joseph resident.
Virginia Galbraith and her husband owned the house fifty years ago. She contacted Jennifer and told her that the original fireplaces and light fixtures were in her current home.
“This never happens,” Jennifer says. “Anyone in preservation will tell you that once these architectural elements are gone, they’re gone.”
Although some original aspects have been returned to the home, Jennifer’s goal for the building, once it has been restored, is more of a support system and resource for historic preservation in the community than a museum.
Of course, those are long-term plans. Today, the focus is on rehabilitating the structure. To that end, the project has made progress. In May, the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation moved the Cracker House from endangered status to its Watched Properties list.
In another victory for the project, the out-of-state owner donated the building to the nonprofit, which will help it apply for recognition from the National Register of Historic Places.
All victories aside, the restoration process has many obstacles ahead; replacing the roof will be a big undertaking. Most of the time and money is spent on the physical labor, but Jennifer and team are ready to get crackin’ and go to work.
“You can put all your plans in place,” she says, “but in preservation, it’s about getting into the dirt.”