"I found the world’s oldest waffle iron.” he marveled as he came through the kitchen door holding a rusty, flat, round, hunk of iron.
Living on a farm that has been in my Dad’s family since 1863, I’m no stranger to rusty iron. Pitted ax heads in the barn, old garden hand tools in the shed, and crusty tractor bolts in a corn field that was once a cow pasture are all as easily spotted as a taxi in New York City. But what my partner held in his hand, I was soon to find, was a different kind of rusty iron; this was a piece of kitchen equipment with a historical pedigree.
This waffle iron consisted of two parts: a ring with two handles that fit onto a wood stove’s burner and two round flat pieces that were hinged together between which the waffle batter was baked. That was all, plain and simple. The hinged section balanced perfectly on the ring. When ring and waffle iron were placed on a wood stove all it took was a gentle nudge and the waffle iron turned over like a coin flipping on edge. Even more interesting was what was molded into the iron. On the rusty outside in raised letters around the perimeter it said, G F Filley St. Louis 8.9. But it was the inside of the hinged section that astounded me. There was no rust inside. It still had its once seasoned black patina. In addition to the amazing surface condition there was the lack of the standard raised squares of a waffle pattern. Instead there were raised letters that said GILES F. FILLEY around the perimeter and a center section of crosses and diamonds. I stood there amazed. I had never seen anything like it. The history detective part of my brain immediately started asking questions. Who was Giles F. Filley? If he was a real person, what sort of man casts his name on the cooking surface of a waffle iron? How old is it? Could I restore it enough to use it again? Little did I know as I made my way to the computer to see what I could find online that I was about to get an education in antique cast iron.
After a few hours online, a morning at the St. Louis Public Library, and a consultation with a cast iron collector my questions were answered. Giles F. Filley was indeed a very real man. I might even go as far as saying that he was the Bill Gates of nineteenth century St. Louis. Giles established the Excelsior Stove works in 1849. In 1851 he invented the Charter Oak cooking stove which became his premier model and best seller around the world. A publication of the time described the Charter Oak stove like this: “Its superior excellence consists in the admirable workmanship and prime quality of material used in its construction; perfect draft, cleanliness, fine baking qualities, durability, and handsome appearance.” In 1874 the Excelsior Manufacturing Company built a new building on North First Street in St. Louis to house their offices and sales room. Most modern day St. Louis citizens would recognize the structure as the Switzer Candy Company building which suffered massive damage in a wind storm in the summer of 2006 only weeks after plans for its renovation were announced. In Giles Filley’s day it had “one and a half acres of floor space on which there was displayed over two hundred fifty different varieties of heating and cooking stoves, and every conceivable article of culinary use.” That would include my waffle iron! By 1887 the Excelsior Manufacturing Company melted an average of forty tons of metal a day--that’s the modern equivalent of two fully loaded eighteen wheel tractor trailers--and shipped their product as far as Europe and Australia.
But G.F. Filley did more than produce stoves and cookware. During the Civil War he was a prominent pro-Union supporter living in Missouri, a slave state. He produced thirty cannons in his foundry and supported the local Union military companies with guns, money, and supplies. He supplied his friend, James Eads, with all the limestone for the interior sections of the piers of Eads Bridge; the first bridge in St. Louis to span the Mississippi River. Giles Filley’s March 1900 obituary describes him as … one of the city’s most prominent manufacturers. … (his) large hearted, unselfish patriotism, his rock-ribbed honesty and heroic sense of honor were such as to make his life a splendid example to those he leaves behind.
Now my question about what sort of man casts his name into the cooking surface of waffle irons was answered. In addition, I knew that my waffle iron was produced between 1849, when the company was established, and 1895 when Giles retired and the company was reorganized. My best guess was that my waffle iron was made between 1870 and 1890 when the Excelsior Manufacturing Co. was at the peak of production but I wanted to be more certain. So I sent a query to the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookwear Association, a group of cast iron cookware collectors who are dedicated to promoting, researching, and preserving the historical legacy of their hobby. The gentleman who answered my questions was Lou Wright, an association member. Lou told me that my waffle iron was made in the 1880s, that the models with Giles Filley cast into the baking surface were scarce but not rare, and that it was worth about $125. The association’s web site also had good instructions for cleaning and re-seasoning cast iron.
Knowing that it was not rare or very valuable I proceeded to try to clean and restore the interior surface. I imagined golden brown waffles, smelling of warm vanilla and caramel, perfectly formed, floating from the iron onto my plate. Taking the Griswold Association’s cleaning suggestions to heart; I found an aerosol oven cleaner that contained lye (sodium hydroxide) and a hefty pair of rubber gloves. I sprayed all the surfaces with a thick coat of oven cleaner, sealed everything in a heavy duty garbage bag, left it all in the garage, and waited twenty-four hours. Then I carefully removed the pieces of iron from the muck in the bag and hosed them off in our gravel driveway. While the interior surface of the waffle iron almost looked new, the outside was cleaner but still rusty. I decided that the cooking surface was the important thing to restore so I didn’t concern myself with removing the rust from the outside. I took everything to the kitchen sink and scrubbed it well with soap and steel wool.
Now it was time for the re-seasoning phase. After the iron was clean and no longer dripping wet I put all the parts into my oven preheated to 325 degrees for about 20 minutes. While I was waiting I gathered a stiff bristle basting brush and a can of Crisco. Then I took the iron out of the oven, set it down on an old towel and brushed a thin coat of oil on all the surfaces. The hot iron melted the Crisco on contact and the stiff bristle brush made getting into the crevices of the raised letters on the waffle cooking surface easy. I wiped all the excess oil from the iron with paper towels, and then returned all parts to the oven. After half an hour I turned the oven off and let the oven and iron cool together. I repeated the heating and oiling steps again the next day. Then I was ready to try baking waffles.
I mixed up my favorite waffle recipe as my husband, Dave, volunteered to test the first waffle. We discovered that his help was required during the baking process as well. As I set the ring on my stove’s burner I realized that there was not enough clearance to flip the iron around in order to bake the second side of the waffle. This hundred and thirty year old waffle iron was designed to be used on a wood stove, not my modern gas stove. So I handed Dave two pot holders and told him to stand by. I heated the iron, opened the hinges, and poured in batter to cover Giles Filley’s name. My next hurdle was judging how long to bake the waffle on each side. My electric waffle iron has a green light which lights to tell you when the iron is hot enough to bake and when the waffle is finished. Mr. Filley’s waffle iron required every bit of baking experience I have and some old fashion trial and error in addition. When I thought the first side was baked enough I called Dave and his pot holders to the stove. I lifted both parts of the waffle iron by the handles on the ring and held it about six inches above the burner as I instructed Dave to gently nudge the hinged section so it flipped over. Then I set the whole thing back on the burner to bake the second side. The first waffle stuck to the baking surface a bit but not enough to discourage me. I peeled off the spots that stuck, sprayed the whole surface with canola oil and started over. Half an hour later most of my mistakes were eaten and there was no batter left in the mixing bowl as I finally pulled my first golden brown, perfectly formed, waffle from my culinary artifact.
Now each time I cross the Eads Bridge on my way to downtown St. Louis I think of Giles F. Filley and the contributions he made to the nineteenth century. Moreover, there is the astounding fact that his cast iron still turns out hearty, golden crusted waffles in the twenty-first century!
Here’s the waffle recipe I used in Giles’ iron. When I don’t want to have Dave and his pot holders on stand-by it works just as well in my electric waffle iron.
I usually double the recipe so I have left over waffles to freeze and pop into the toaster for a quick breakfast.
Farm Girl Waffles
½ cup all purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup quick cooking rolled oats
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 beaten eggs
1 1/3 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup canola oil
In a medium bowl stir together flours, oats, baking powder, sugar, and salt.
In another bowl stir together the beaten eggs, milk and vanilla.
Add one third of the milk mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine. Then stir in one third of the oil. Continue adding the milk alternately with the oil until everything is combined.
Bake in waffle iron according to manufacturer's directions.