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A fruitcake of an estimable age finds a home at Bloomington's Ewing Manor

Fruitcake WWI.jpg
Toni Tucker
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Ewing Manor Cultural Center
Now in its second century, this fruitcake resides at Ewing Manor in Bloomington.

Famed late night TV entertainer Johnny Carson once joked that there is only one fruitcake in the world and people just keep mailing it to each other. If so, this could be that fruitcake.

The saga starts in 1918 during World War I in the Shelby County town of Windsor. Anna Fayette Kuhl Herron and Sarah Kuhl Wallace baked a fruitcake to send to their brother John Carey Kuhl, who was stationed in Europe. Kuhl and the cake didn't cross paths. When the cake arrived, Kuhl had already shipped home.

Toni Tucker is the curator of Bloomington's Ewing Manor cultural site, the new home of the fruitcake. Tucker said eventually the Air Force sent the fruitcake back.

"By the time it came back to the States, it wasn't edible. But the family decided, you know, this was something that we had sent our brother, so every year at Christmas, they set out this fruitcake for people to look at," said Tucker.

Fruitcake WWI 2.jpg
Toni Tucker
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The 104-year-old fruitcake donated to Ewing Manor can be seen each Christmas season during holiday tours.

This annual ceremonial viewing lasted four generations and migrated across Illinois. Sarah Randolph was the latest custodian in Joliet. Randolph has given it to Tucker and Ewing Manor.

"There is no one to pass it down to, so they tried giving it to the Smithsonian, to other local historical societies, and were not able to find a home."

This is kind of like the old holiday joke — don't leave your car unlocked at Christmas, someone will put a fruitcake in it. The reason fruitcake recipes developed in the first place was to preserve fruit and other perishable ingredients in a way that would last a while in the winter; in this case last, and last, and last.

"It's really hard when you pick it up, it's quite heavy. It's dark on the top and they have kept it wrapped in the same cloth, cheese cloth, as when it was originally shipped,” said Tucker.

Tucker's background is in libraries. She had expected the family did something to conserve the fruitcake for it to have lasted this long in this condition. Nope: in the cheesecloth, in a Ziploc bag, in a shoebox, in the attic.

"It really smells like a log burning in a fireplace. Woody and almost like a burnt smell like when you blow out a candle. It has no resemblance of a fruitcake smell," said Tucker.

But what's a fruitcake without inflicting it on ... that is ... sharing it with others? Tucker said the military had used a smaller box to ship the fruitcake back to the States 100 plus years ago. They had to cut three slices and wedge them in to make it fit. Those slices are now with other historical societies. The recipe for this very durable fruitcake has been lost to time. But Tucker said perhaps something could be determined forensically.

"You can actually see bits of fruit when you look at the cake. You can tell there's fruit in it. It's not just like a brown log. It looks to be like they were oranges or something of the orange family," said Tucker.

Tthe ossified fruitcake has been a social media hit for Ewing Manor, she said, with comments ranging from "Ewww!" to "looks yummy." Tucker said the fruitcake could conceivably have other uses than as a historical artifact.

"You could drive nails with it and use it to prop your door open, a heavy door," said Tucker.

Tucker said she's thinking about ways to exhibit the item and likes the idea of gathering period fruitcake recipes, and maybe consulting a food historian for context.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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