|What makes Claxton, Georgia the Fruitcake Capitol of the
You guessed it: fruitcake.
But how, in a town that has only recently achieved a population of more than 3,000, did an industry grow and develop into a multi-million dollar business, sending out over nine million pounds of fruitcake worldwide every year?
It began with an Italian immigrant, Savino Gillio Tos, who opened a bakery in Claxton in the early 1900’s. Later, in the 1940’s, began two fruitcake bakeries which were the direct and indirect products of Savino Tos, who died in 1966. Our story concerns the indirect product.
“Dad always gave Mr. Tos credit for starting the fruitcake industry here in Claxton,”said Ira Womble, Jr., who took over the GEORGIA FRUITCAKE COMPANY when his father died in 1976.
Ira Womble, Sr. was born in Claxton in 1906. At an early age he began his apprenticeship and wed the former Tillia E. Atwood and then moved to Clear Water, Florida, where Womble managed the Federal Baking Company. Later, he moved closer to home starting his own bakery in Savannah.
It was during this time that Ira Womble began his association with Henry Ford, “a man many years ahead of his time,” according to the younger Womble. “Dad became close friends with Mr. Ford and at his request he moved his bakery to Richmond Hill in 1940.”
(An interesting historical footnote: “In the 1940’s Dad perfected bread made from soy bean flour for Mr. Ford. Mr. Ford was convinced that in years to come, the soy bean would provide much to the nutrition required by the growing population.”)
Ford helped Womble in many ways. “Some of the equipment we have in the bakery was given to Dad by Mr. Ford.” But Ford had bigger things in mind after learning of the fruitcake Womble was baking.
“Mr. Ford suggested a plan to put the fruitcake on the market by sending 50 pounds to each Ford dealer at Christmas,” recalled the younger Womble, but Ford died before this could take place.
“Dad then contacted his old friend Mr. Tos, who agreed in 1947 to sell the Claxton bakery to Dad. Mr. Tos was unable to go through with the sale so Dad moved back to Claxton and opened a bakery under his own name in 1948.”
It took Ira Womble, Jr. a few years and a trip around the world before he, too, decided he wanted to become a part of the fruitcake industry in Claxton.
He finished high school her in 1949 and then attended Georgia Military College on a football scholarship. Later, he moved to Washington D.C. to work for the FBI and study law at George Washington University.
“In 1952, during the Korean conflict, I was inducted into the Army and sent to the Far East. After service I returned to Claxton and asked Dad if I could work for him. I wanted to come home.”
Soon the bakery was growing. Womble and his Dad registered GEORGIA FRUITCAKE COMPANY with the U. S. Patent office and it became their official trademark.
With their legal trade name in place, the company took its first and largest overseas order, “On contract with a deadline for shipment.” It was this last detail that provided the bakery with one of the most trying periods of its existence.
“We calculated to work two shifts, Dad on one and me on the other.” But the elder Womble had a heart attack on the first day of production and this left only one person to work two shifts a day for an estimated 30 days.
From the hospital, Womble told his son to let the contract go, that the work was too much for just one person to supervise. But, recalled the younger Womble, “We had everything we had and everything we ever hoped to be tied up in that shipment.”
The Womble family came to the rescue. “My brother, Dr. Allen B. was in Metter at that time and he came over and supervised the wrapping of the cake at night. Mother worked too, and we finally filled the two freight cars with fruitcake. This was the largest single order we ever shipped overseas.”
In 1960, the Womble’s built their present bakery on Hwy. 301, or Duval Street, moving the business from Newton Street. In addition to the GEORGIA FRUITCAKE production, they also kept open the retail part of the bakery until the early seventies. “We closed the retail in 1973. Dad’s health had failed and it was too much for one person to handle.” Ira Womble, Sr. died in 1976.
A year later, Ira Womble, Jr.’s son, John asked if he could join the business. “I know how Dad must have felt in 1954 when I returned,” said Womble. “I am proud to have John with me. “It gives me a feeling of pride to see him as he goes about his work with the same dedication as Dad and I had before him.”
John is the reason GEORGIA FRUITCAKE has not been sold to any large corporations, though Womble admits he has had several offers. “It is not for sale as long as John is determined to keep the business in the family.”
Womble said he would some day like to reopen the retail part of the bakery “so that I could pass on to John the things Dad taught me.”
Part-time help is also important to the fruitcake production. “We are very fortunate,” said Womble, “to have had the best helpers in this area return year after year. They take pride in their work.”
Womble said he would like to employ them year round, but the actual making of the fruitcake is only seasonal work. “I would like to publicly thank them for their dedication,” he said.
THE COMPANY TODAY
Though the baking season is approximately six months out of the year, the work does not end when the ovens are turned off, or begin when they’re fired up. “Buying materials for the next season at the right time is a critical factor in this business.”
Trucks are presently moving in and out of the Duval Street plant bringing in tons of cherries, pineapple, lemon and orange peel, citron, almonds, walnuts, and pecans. These will be mixed, blended and baked into GEORGIA FRUITCAKE, which received one of the world’s highest good awards in 1976 as it was given the Monde Selection Gold Medal from Brussels awarded in London.
GEORGIA FRUITCAKE, though it may not have made it into the Ford showrooms of America in the early forties, today has sales representatives all over the world: Greenwich, Connecticut; Norfolk, Virginia; Anchorage, Alaska; Honolulu, Hawaii; Okinawa and Yokohama in Japan; Seoul, South Korea; Manila, Guam, Frankfurt, Germany; London, England; San Juan, Puerto Rico; San Diego and Oakland, California; Jacksonville, Florida; Dallas, Texas; and, of course, Claxton, Georgia.