In 1890, at a Christmastime wedding in Belton, a bride served a wedding cake that people are still talking about.
But this wasn’t just any bride.
Zollie Luther was the youngest daughter of John Hill Luther, the president of what was then Baylor Female College. Now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, the college is one of the oldest educational institutions west of the Mississippi River, and Zollie was both an alumna and a teacher at the school when she was married at the First Baptist Church in Belton on Dec. 18, 1890.
Articles that were published in all the major newspapers in the state called it “one of the most interesting events to occur in the history of Bell County.” Thirty girls dressed in white, singing the bridal chorus from “Lohengrin,” walked up the aisle ahead of the bride, who was marrying a local banker named William Goodrich Jones.
After the wedding and amid ferns, mistletoe and red roses, the couple hosted a reception somewhere on campus that lasted until midnight and included “showers of rice and good wishes,” before the newlyweds took the train to San Antonio and then on to Mexico for their honeymoon.
But before they left, they had a traditional wedding cake, and nearly 128 years later, the university still has a piece.
Earlier this year, Mary Hardin-Baylor chemistry professor and department chair Ruth Ann Murphy sent me a blurry photo of this small, shriveled-up piece of organic material that I would not have otherwise been able to determine was a piece of wedding cake. Along with Beth Norvell, the associate director of alumni relations and the university’s museum, Murphy reached out because they wanted to find a possible recipe for the cake. But, of course, I wanted to find out more about Zollie.
First, what we know about the cake.
Norvell, who recently moved from Brady to Belton for the job, says she discovered the cake as she was getting oriented with the museum’s collection.
In one of the archival boxes, she found a paper box with a note from a woman named Grace Rogers, who said she had attended Zollie’s wedding and kept a piece of the cake. Norvell says the cake was donated in the 1950s and that Rogers had been an art teacher at the same time that Zollie was teaching.
Norvell says that even though the cake didn’t look appetizing, she took it as an invitation to learn more about that time in the university’s history and about baking technology in the late 1800s.
Modernized baking powder from Clabber Girl didn’t come out until 1899, so the cake was likely leavened with eggs or one of the earlier baking agents. At the time of the wedding, nearby Temple had been a railroad town for almost a decade, so the availability of ingredients wasn’t quite as limited as it would be for bakers who could only use what they could find from local farms in December in Texas.
Because the cake has shriveled and browned over the years, it’s hard to tell if it was a layer cake. Norvell says she thinks it might have been a classic white cake that browned over time. It does look like there might be small pieces of raisins or nuts.
“It doesn’t smell like spices, but I did not lick it,” she says.
It’s unlikely that the cake has alcohol in it because of the university’s Baptist affiliation, which reduces the chance of it being a fruitcake.
The person who donated the cake had said in a note that they thought it might have been prepared by Jeff Hamilton, Sam Houston’s former slave who became a lifelong member of the Houston family and his unofficial oral historian. Although there is a monument at Mary Hardin-Baylor dedicated to Hamilton, records indicate that he was a janitor for the school, not a cook.
Norvell says she think the home economics department might have been charged with baking the cake because the reception was on campus, but she has recently found a note that Hamilton’s wife cooked for the college around the time of the wedding, so she might have been behind it.
That’s about all we can divine about the cake, but the Luther family proved to be equally interesting.
Amie Oliver, associate director and librarian/curator of print materials at Baylor’s Texas Collection in Waco, says that archive has a substantial collection about the Luther family, thanks in part to Zollie’s older sister, Anne, who became a pioneering missionary in Brazil.
Although Zollie was born Feb. 28, 1865, in Missouri, the family didn’t live in the Midwest for long. By the time she was a young girl, the family had moved to Galveston, and in 1878 her father became the president of Baylor Female College in Independence, which was also the home of Baylor. In 1886, both Baylors moved to Central Texas: the men to Waco, where the school merged with Waco University, and the women to an 11-acre hilltop site in Belton.
That’s how the Luther family got to Belton, where just a few years later the university would host Zollie’s lavish wedding to Jones, a former Galveston merchant who was a Temple banker.
Zollie had already graduated from Baylor Female College and taught zoology classes from 1886 to 1891, a year after her marriage, which was unconventional at the time, Norvell says.
Although the university had dormitory housing, a set of cottages was built during the 1890s, which allowed female students to stay on campus and work their way through college, another rarity during the time. Zollie’s mother, Anne, helped students who lived on campus away from their families while they went to school.
“These folks did a lot for people,” Oliver says.
Zollie’s sister, Anne, who was six years older, married a man named William Buck Bagby in 1881, and they spent their lives in Brazil establishing a network of Baptist churches. John Hill Luther, who shared his daughter’s passion for mission work, eventually left Texas to work with them in Brazil, where he died in 1907.
Oliver says the Texas Collection contains several poems from William Goodrich Jones to Zollie, one written for their 40th anniversary in 1930 and another after she died in 1934. “You can see their personalities, and you can tell they really loved each other,” she says.
Zollie and William had four children, three who lived to adulthood: Luther, Riette and Doris Goodrich Jones, who became a well-known puppeteer in Waco during the 1930s until her death in 1995.
Doris’ life was well-documented — some of her puppets are housed at the Texas Collection, and she wrote a book about her life in 1986 — and she did not have any children. Riette had two children: Charles, Zollie’s grandson, who died in 1989, and a namesake, Zollie Ruth Jones, who was born in 1932 and might still be living, possibly in Minnesota. Zollie and William have several great-grandchildren who are still living, but I haven’t been able to connect with them.
After a heart attack at 69 years old, Zollie died “quickly and peacefully” on March 6, 1934, and is buried at Hillcrest Cemetery in Temple. Her husband died 16 years later.
Jones later became known as “the father of Texas forestry” because he authorized a system of state forests. W G Jones State Forest in Conroe is named for him. (“He was the original tree hugger,” Oliver says.)
Thelma Cooper, one of Anne Bagby’s grandchildren who is active in preserving the family’s history, was incredulous that the university had a piece of cake that was more than 100 years old. Cooper, who lives in Waco, says that her mother, Alice Bagby, recalled William and Zollie being “extremely kind and loving” to her when she was attending Baylor from 1914 to 1918.
“Their home became a place of support and comfort since Alice’s parents were far away in Brazil, as missionaries,” she says. “She spent many a lovely holiday with the Joneses and was very close to both their daughters, Riette and Doris.”
Zollie Luther Jones’ legacy is greater than a crumbling piece of her wedding cake, which is now preserved in acid-free storage, but Norvell says she hopes to re-create a version of the dessert for alumni events or community activities.
“It’s something that involves the senses and speaks of our history,” she says. “Anytime we can involve more of our senses, we have a richer experience.”
SHOW US YOUR CAKE
This piece of Zollie and William Jones’ wedding cake could be the oldest piece of cake in Texas, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t decades-old mementos hiding in freezers throughout the state. The tradition of a couple keeping a piece of wedding cake to eat for good luck on their first anniversary dates back to the 1700s, when a cake could be preserved with boozy fruit or wine. Since the advent of freezers, we’ve been keeping them around for a lot longer than a year. I’d love to hear stories about wedding cakes you might still have or ones you held onto for a long time but eventually decided to toss. You can email me at email@example.com or call 512-912-2504.
— Addie Broyles