George Washington Pancake and Other Stories

2.27.2022 [archived ~ previously published 2.23.2017]

Image of George Washington made from two pancakes, two grape halves, and a little whipped cream. 

George Washington Pancake was well-known in Deer River in the 1890s because he was one of the fastest railroad tie makers for the Itasca Lumber Company.  George was born in about 1855, during an era when many families named a son after the first president of the United States.

History Lesson

On the 1850 census, (which only gave the name of the head of household), there were 70 men in the nation with the first and middle name of “George Washington.” By 1860, when children were listed too, there were over sixteen hundred men and boys bearing that name! 

For those of you needing the rest of the story, the number was about the same in 1900, which given the shorter life span. meant there were probably George Washington juniors as well.  By 1940, the last census available for public review, this number dropped to eight hundred.  Therefor it is hard to say if the name was carried to a third generation, or if it was no longer vogue to name children George Washington.

Back to Mr. Pancake

Though born in Ohio, George Washington Pancake was a lumberjack living in northern Minnesota by the time he was thirty.  Eventually, he became a camp cook and was given the nickname of, [G1] “Pancake Bill.” He married a widow with several young sons. George and Minnie had a daughter, Josephine and the family moved to the eastern part of Itasca County.  It was here that George made the headlines of the Duluth, Bigfork and Deer River newspapers.

The First Accident – George Washington Pancake the Victim ~ Itasca News 11-21-1903

“The first accident in this section in the wild fray of deer hunting was that at Swan River last Sunday in which George Washington Pancake was the victim. The report written in the Duluth News Tribune is as follows:          

‘While hunting with a party at Beauty lake eleven miles from this place, yesterday morning, George Washington Pancake, an old hunter and tie maker, who is better known in this vicinity as “Pancake Bill,” was shot either by a set gun or by some unknown person, receiving injuries that may prove fatal.  This is the first casualty among deer hunters in northern Minnesota.

Mr. Pancake, in company with William Carlin and Ed Clarke, both prominent citizens of Floodwood, went to Beauty lake to hunt deer.  This morning, when commencing the day’s chase, the party separated.  A short time after the injured man had left his companions Mr. Carlin heard a shot, which was followed by a cry for help.

He immediately ran in the direction from which the shot came and found Pancake lying on the ground.  On examination is was found that a full charge of buckshot had entered the man’s body in the vicinity of the abdomen.  He was taken to Swan River station and sent from there to Grand Rapids.  His injuries are such that it is thought he cannot survive.’

It is supposed that either Mr. Pancake stumbled across the trap of a set gun, discharging it, or the charge was fired by some hunter who was in the vicinity of deer trails.

Usually, the guns are set very near the trail, but no indication of such a trap has been reported.  It is a violation of the law to attempt to kill deer in this manner, but set guns are known to have been placed.[G2] 

George did live through that life-threatening accident and the owner of the weapon was never discovered.  Apparently, George remained in good physical condition because the Pancake family moved to Seattle, Washington, and in 1910 he was still listed as a woodsman making railroad ties. 

More Pancake Stories

Lumberjack Stealing Pancakes – Lucy Gill and William “Will” Buentenmeire got married in St. Paul in March 1902.  The couple then set off for their honeymoon to the homestead Will had near Bridgie (now in Koochiching County).  Years later, Lucy was interviewed during a WPA project, “I will never forget the first morning we ate breakfast in our new home.  It was only a lean-to open on the south side.  The stove sat just inside this lean-to.  I baked pancakes for Mr. Buentenmeire while he ate.

After he finished, he started to bake cakes for me.  He said, ‘well, you can have this one in about a minute.’ I was sure I saw him take it off the griddle and put it on a plate on the back of the stove, but when I went to get it there was no pancake there.  I asked him where it was and he said, ‘Oh, you were too slow, a lumberjack just got it!’ I looked at him to see if he was trying to make fun of me, as the only lumberjacks I had ever seen or heard of were men who worked in the woods.  I was sure no man had taken that pancake.

Will said, ‘You just watch this one,’ So he put another one on the back of the stove.  It hadn’t been there long enough to cool off when a gray and white bird flew in and took the whole thing.  I’ll bet my eyes bugged out!  Will said, ‘well, that is your first lumberjack.’  I afterward found out they would steal a person blind unless you kept everything covered up.[Work Projects Administration, Interviews and Biographical Sketches, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota.]

Pancake Eating Contest ­– in her book The Last Frontier, Bergit L. Anderson recalls hearing of an incident that happened in the summer of 1902. “…one of the most outstanding parties took place at the Wetzel and Lusby cabins.  The girls invited the whole community to a pancake-eating contest and offered a prize to the person who could eat the most.  Hugo Zaiser won the prize.  He was a boy in his early teens, visiting his brother, Art, on his claim.” 

Bachelors and Pancakes – I have found numerous references to northern bachelors eating pancakes three times a day, so I was surprised to see this mentioned in the Bigfork Settler in February 1907: “Ben Rahier was down on his claim last week enjoying a feast of pancakes.” Perhaps Ben was tired of his own cooking or had designs on a gal that worked at the cafe.

President Washington’s Hoecakes

Nelly Custis Lewis, Washington’s step-granddaughter, who was raised at Mount Vernon, recorded her grandfather’s habit of eating hoecakes for breakfast.  Nelly wrote “He rose before sunrise, always wrote or read until 7 in summer or half past seven in winter. His breakfast was then ready – he ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream.”

And finally, to tie it all together I found this image of George Washington made from two pancakes, two grape halves, and a little whipped cream.  This was on a blog called Kitchen Fun with my Three Sons, February 2012.

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