CITY LIFE donuts

Published on September 8th, 2015 | by Kate Albert Ward

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A sweet and hole-some history of Tacoma doughnuts

I became interested in the history of doughnuts in Tacoma when my brother mentioned to me that he and his wife were renting a home that had once belonged to “The Doughnut King” of Tacoma.

I thought my brother fabricated the anecdote so as to promote a personal agenda– to have a doughnut party with a blind taste-test– but my research revealed that Tacoma was in fact the home of James Price Lesher, a man who was indeed called “The Doughnut King.” Lesher came from a family of doughnut royalty; His brother-in-law, A.A. Hoover, lived in Portland where he was also called  “The Doughnut King.

Horse-drawn delivery wagons for Hoyt Doughnuts circa 1910. Photo from the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

Along with his brother Hoyt Lesher, James founded the Hoyt Doughnut Company in 1910 at 610 South Fife. In 1917, Hoyt Doughnuts relocated to 2412 6th Ave– not too far from where Buck Naked should (have) open(ed). James Lesher was considered a pioneer in doughnut manufacturing, and strongly led the local business community through his active involvement in many business and social clubs– earning him the title “Mayor of Sixth Avenue.”

Bringing People Together
Doughnuts– and most likely Hoyt’s Doughnuts– played a part in Tacoma’s first block party, held in 1920. Doughnuts were given free-of-charge to the attendees, a total of over 600 adults and children. The block party festivities took place between South Trafton Street between 6th and 8th Avenues, less than two blocks away from Lesher’s doughnut shop.

Tacoma’s first Block Party. Photo from the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

The Community Service Club, who hosted the party, wanted to provide an opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other. What a better way to combat the isolating effects of urban living than dancing in the street, community singing, and free doughnuts?

The Wars
During both World Wars, the Hoyt Doughnut Co. provided their delightful pastries to troops at Fort Lewis.

A 1932 Tacoma News Tribune article about Lesher (an article I was startled to see fatefully placed next the bold headline “Wife was Fat, No Longer Attractive: Loses Husband’s Love”, until I realized it was an ad for a diet drink) notes that Lesher would joke that he had already filled the 91st Division with so many doughnut “holes” before they went overseas that a few more bullets couldn’t hurt them.

Both John T. Edge in Donuts: An American Passion and Paul R. Mullins in Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut claim that it was during World War I that doughnuts became an “American” food. A group of women working for the Salvation Army wanted to help stave off homesickness among troops they were assisting in France and thought baked goods would do just the trick. Without access to proper baking equipment, these resourceful women figured out how to make doughnuts to serve to the men.

Doughnuts became a symbol of the comforts of home, and soon both the YMCA and Red Cross also began distributing doughnuts as a part of their aid to soldiers.

Red Cross volunteers handed out milk and doughnuts to over 16,000 troops brought to Tacoma in December of 1945. Photo from the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

 

Post-War: Ernie Rice, Dean of the Doughnut Men

Ernie Rice in December of 1948, holding a fresh batch of doughnuts. Photo courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library image archives.

In 1947, Ernie Rice, who started at Hoyt Doughnuts in 1911 and also married the Leshers’ sister, bought the company from James (Hoyt had long dropped out of the business, but it is uncertain when).

Ernie developed his own recipe for the doughnuts, which he unabashedly declared to be the best on the West Coast. Adding some credence to his claim, Ernie’s doughnuts were popular throughout the Puget Sound for “their unusually fine texture and delectable flavor.”

Ernie also claimed a world record for having made 1,100 doughnuts during an eleven-hour shift– a surely arduous feat that can be difficult to appreciate after witnessing the numbing march of doughnuts spewed out of a typical Krispy Kreme store at a rate of nearly 3,000 doughnuts an hour.

What might prove more astonishing in our career-hopping era is that Ernie made doughnuts for the Hoyt Doughnut Company for 48 years. Referred to as “The Dean of the Doughnutmen,” Ernie was believed to be one of the few remaining career doughnut-makers when he retired in 1959. Without a buyer for the business, Ernie’s retirement closed the Hoyt Doughnut Company for good.

But this was far from the end of doughnuts in Tacoma.

House of Donuts

House of Donuts. Photo courtesy of Justin C. on Yelp.

Roughly about the same time Hoyt closed, Kendall Clement opened House of Donuts at 1524 Tacoma Ave. So. Kendall told a reporter in 1961 that rainy weather caused people to buy more doughnuts, making Tacoma the perfect spot to set up shop.

Clement went on to open up several shops in the wet Puget Sound, including one in Lakewood and their most recent shop in downtown Tacoma. Both continue to operate with high ratings today. Just as it did in its early days, House of Donuts provides a wide variety, yet has die-hard followers of their old fashioned and plain doughnuts.

Drum Roll Please
I know you’ve been wondering about the results of my brother’s blind taste test of local doughnuts. With a total of eight voters, the contenders ranked as follows.

1. Le Donut
2. Pao’s Donuts
3. Krispy Kreme
4. Safeway

Fun Facts about Doughnuts

  • There is a French doughnut called pets de nonne, which translates to “nun’s farts.”
  • A song called “My Doughnut Girl” pays tribute to the Salvation Army’s support of troops during World War I.
  • Paula Deen’s “Lady’s Brunch Burger”

    In 1941, Dr. J. Howard Crum proposed a doughnut diet plan for losing weight– all those calories just mean more energy right?

  • Paula Deen’s “Lady’s Brunch Burger” replaces the  traditional burger bun with two Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.
  • Rogue Ales has partnered with the popular Portland-based Voodoo Doughnuts to create a bacon maple ale after one of their signature doughnuts (note that Le Donut on Hilltop has their own bacon maple bar).
  • Oscar Wilde once said, “Between the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist the hole!”
  • In the 2004 book The Apostles by Yanier Blak Moore, the principal character’s girlfriend suggests leaving their gang life in Chicago to open up a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Tacoma and get rich because Tacoma is “ripe for investment” and doughnuts as a complement to the coffee craze. (165-6)
  • Krispy Kreme did not invent the doughnut drive fundraiser. Doughnuts were used for fundraising by the Army as early as 1919. The Camp Fire Girls held doughnut drives until they switched over to mints in 1950 because they would not go stale.

 

Tacoma Camp Fire Girls selling doughnuts to Mayor Harry P. Cain as a part of an effort to raise money to go to Camp Sealth on Vashon Island. Photo from the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

Originally published January 15, 2012

 

 

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About the Author

A writer for Post Defiance, Kate has done freelance writing for the Museum of Glass, The South Sound User's Guide, and 19th-Century European Paintings at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Kate’s previous experience includes working as the Kress Foundation Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum, and as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for Portland State University. Kate currently works at Hilltop Artists, a youth development program that uses glass arts to connect young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds to better futures.



15 Responses to A sweet and hole-some history of Tacoma doughnuts

  1. jeepersjulie says:

    Spoke to the leasing agent for the “buck naked” property yesterday & was informed that the space is under negotiations with a new proprietor for a full service restaurant to occupy the space. No donuts for 6th ave yet.

  2. Dennis Flannigan says:

    Hoyt’s was the standard. Above the rest, the real test.

    They were an entry point to understanding life through donuts. As a child, I stood outside the window to watch Mr. Rice, or someone plunk these remarkable confections into hot oil, turn them over one at a time, and pull them out to be ordered and served plain or with powdered sugar.

    Like skiing, fresh powder is best. For our family, donuts (usually a half dozen) were placed in a brown paper bag, powdered, gently shaken (not stirred) to spread the powdered sugar and served hot.

    Oh, my goodness. Oh, the goodness. Oh! Before Hoyt’s closed, they marketed the donuts to stores. Art’s grocery store in Browns Point was a customer, and I was a customer of Art’s; so even as a teenager, I continued savoring the King of donuts and the delight of calories. Hail to Hoyt’s, Mr. Rice and way back in the day.

    To top it off, Hoyt’s was across the street from the Sunset Theater (now, Posh). In those days you could bring food into a theater. For a five and six year old, the Saturday Matinee on 6th Avenue included at least one Hoyt’s donut — clearly, the Frisko Freeze of donuts.

    For additional Tacoma donut history, chase down the Spudnut story. Mm, mm, good.

    Dennis

    • Kate Albert Ward says:

      Thank you so much for your comment Dennis! I asked my Aunt about Hoyt’s because she grew up here, and though she remembered it, she most often went to a different doughnut shop, so I wasn’t able to get the kind of personal details you shared here. It sounds like you have great memories of growing up in Tacoma and I hope you will continue to share them with us!

  3. Christine says:

    I was disappointed at your list of doughnut “contestants”. There are several great shops around Tacoma that should have been contenders. Helen’s (56th & Portland) and Connie’s (43rd & Pacific)are both delicious and locally owned.

    • Kate Albert Ward says:

      Thanks for the feedback Christine. The “contest” to which you refer was not a regulated event put on by Post Defiance, but a private party theme put on by my brother just for fun. The small private party took place before the article was ever conceived and did not intend to include a comprehensive list of doughnuts in Tacoma. The event served as an inspiration for the story, but was not the focus. Should you ever decide to ever conduct your own more-comprehensive blind taste test, we would love to hear about your results!

  4. tammie polley says:

    I am the great granddaughter of the hoyts and have been trying to find information about them so thank you for your post

  5. Rize says:

    Le Donut for the win! #hilltop

  6. Bob Buckley says:

    A few years ago I purchased a old oak swivel rocking office chair from a older gentleman that that said the chair original belonged to his grandfather Hoyt the 1/2 part owner of Hoyt’s Bakery.

    • Tammie Polley says:

      Mr Buckley
      my name is Tammie iam the great granddaughter of the hoyts. I had alot ofpictures and some heirlooms of theres up until about 10 years ago when someone broke into my storage and took everything. I cant think of anyone older other my father leslie but goes by jerry that could be related. My uncle richard passed away several years ago and of course my aunt donna ma is a women,I do not have alot of information on the family you see my grandfather died when my father was 12 years old and my grandfather had sister who died when she was a child,it is there parents who were the hoyts .My grandmother remarried and my grandfather and great grandparents or hoyts donuts was never talked about until after my grandmother died and pictures and heirlooms were found in the attic. I was wondering if you remembered the name of the man who sold you the chair. and if it really belonged to my great grandfather would you be interested in selling it.

      thank you for taking the time to read this.Hopfully its not to confusing tammie

      • David says:

        Hi Tammy,
        Send me your email address, and I can send you a neat photo postcard concerning Hoyts Donuts. It is a picture of James Lesher and a small girl (daughter ?)standing beside one of their delivery cars, postmarked 1913.

  7. TED LOPAT says:

    IS THERE A RECIPE FOR HOYTS DONUTS AVAILABLE?

  8. Atticus Funk says:

    Great historical photos. Thanks!

  9. Marilyn Lepape says:

    I was trying to think of the name of that donut shop on 6th Avenue in Tacoma recently, and finally remembered that it was called Hoyt’s. When I Googled Hoyt’s this morning, I was delighted to find your interesting article. When I was a little girl, my mother would often stop by Hoyt’s and pick up a dozen donuts in a paper bag (with powdered sugar) on our way to catch the ferry to our home in Gig Harbor. I also seem to remember that you could see some sort of donut- making machine through the window of the shop. Those were the best donuts ever!

    Marilyn Lepape

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