Russellville’s Own Pillsbury Dough Boy

Story by Jeannie Stone

Baxter Ewell Braeshears, 89, loves to bake. His kitchen prowess is the result of a lifetime spent in the food industry. Although he doesn’t claim that his middle place status in a family with 10 children had much to do with his familiarity in the kitchen, Braeshears admits he learned the value of food early on. 

Braeshears graduated from Plainview-Rover High School in 1938. The U.S. Army interrupted Braeshear’s final year at Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University).

“It was just a two-year school back then,” he said.

The young soldier found his niche when he noticed the desert conditions in Ft. Bliss, Texas where the army had sent him.

“I told myself I needed to do something to avoid working in that oppressive heat,” he said, “so I offered to cook.”

The rest, as he says, is history. The army sent Braeshears to San Antonio to learn to cook, and he returned a mess sergeant.

“I had to feed 120 men and was allocated $1.35 per soldier, and that was for the entire day,” he said. “The men all griped about the army food, but every one of them gained weight.”

“I tried to run the best mess hall in the whole battalion,” he added. “Thank goodness, I had a boy from Fr. Flanagan’s home, and he’d say thanks at mealtime if I wasn’t available to say grace. That boy taught me a lot.”

After nearly six years serving in the military, Braeshears landed a job with Popular Dry Goods Co. in El Paso, Texas, and later ended up working for the Pillsbury Bakery Company.

“For many years Arthur Godfrey was the spokesman for Pillsbury,” he said. ” He would always make the comment on the radio, ‘Those were the good old days,’ but I’ll take these,” he said, with a chuckle as he reflects over his life.

Pillsbury sent Braeshears to cooking and baking school right away.

“That was before I even married Ruth,” he said. “At the time, the Pillsbury lines consisted only of flour, pancake mix and Ferina (a breakfast cereal similar to Cream of Wheat,)” he said. “as the years went by we started introducing pie crusts and hot roll mixes. Many years later, we introduced the Bundt cake.”

Many people didn’t know what Bundt cakes were, Braeshears said. “I didn’t know either.” He also remembers when Angel Food cake mixes first came out in a box.

“Once, a woman called, and she was upset because her Angel cake had flopped, so I took a box over to her house and baked her one in her over,” he said. “Oh, the elderly ladies would get mad at me trying to sell those newfangled cake mixes in the grocery store. I guess it was insulting them in a way.”

Braeshears used his baking skills to introduce new products to the grocers.

“I had to be creative,” he said. “Back then, flour was 39 cents a bag, sugar was 49 cents a bag and cake mixes were 29 cents.”

He had an additional worry at a Houston grocery supply business in his territory.

“Every Monday morning I met wight he manager and there was a Proctor and Gamble man, Howard, who was a standing meeting after mine,” he said. “He would always ask the secretary what I had shown the boss, and if I had something new, he would pass the information up on the line. Oh, he thought Pillsbury had a lab in Houston because I left so many baked goods.”

Braeshears took it upon himself to teach old Howard a lesson. “I took an eight-inch pan and cut the bottom out of it, greased and floured it and placed it in a nine inch pan. I poured in pink batter and sprinkled some chocolate chips and poured white batter in the nine-inch and frosted the whole thing green. I told the secretary if Howard asked about it to tell him it was a Watermelon cake.”

Poor Howard took the bait. He eagerly reported the information to his Corpus Christi office, and they reported it to their division headquarters in New Orleans.

“In no time, they had Minneapolis (Pillsbury headquarters) on the phone asking about this new Watermelon cake. Of course, my people didn’t know anything about it, but my supervisor suspected it was my doing. I got in trouble over that, but Howard learned a lesson. He was just too nosy.”

Another cookie fete dropped in Braeshear’s apron when the owner of a new grocery store in Houston asked him to bake a cake for the grand opening.

“I asked him how many to make it for, and all he said was, ‘Who knows?’” The owner shared he was inviting all his customers from across the state, into Louisiana and beyond. Braeshears solicited the assistance of three other bakery representatives. Together, they baked a cake and laid it out on a four by eight foot slab of plywood.

“It took 500 cups of sugar, 500 cups of shortening, 400 cups of flour, 200 cups of butter, 150 cups of milk, 10 cups of salt, 32 tablespoons of baking powder, 20 tablespoons of flavoring, 1,440 fresh eggs and 450 lbs. of fresh orange frosting to create the 1,000 lb. cake,” he said.

“We made it to look like the grocery store with a parking lot made of chocolate frosting and little bushes fashioned from dried coconut and sugar sprinkled over them to suggest blooms. I went to the dime store and bought the little cars.”

“They billed it as a ‘Texas-sized cake,’and all the dignitaries who attended the reception the night before the opening really made a fuss over it.”

It might not have had a happy ending had Braeshears not added some safety measures once the cake was completed.

“I told the manager I needed some ant poison because I hadn’t worked that hard to risk losing the cake to a bunch of ants,” he said. “The manager ordered a stock boy to load me up.”

Baking up treats wasn’t the only marketing tool he used. Braeshears started volunteering as a clown at Texas Children’s Hospital and even road in parades, sometimes atop an elephant, representing Pillsbury.

Because of his wife’s poor health, the Braeshears moved to the Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona, area before making a move back to Texas. In 1988, they retired to Russellville, close to Braeshear’s native Yell County.

Braeshears lost his beloved wife to cancer after 58 years of marriage. He still has family, including a brother and a sister.

Even with limited vision Braeshears still knows his way around the kitchen, marking the settings on the oven with pieces of tape and keeping a powerful flashlight nearby.

“I still do a lot of baking,” he said. “In fact, I’ve got a chocolate chip pound cake in the kitchen right now. Can I get you some?”

Nothing says lovin’ like something from Baxter’s oven.

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