Monday, April 29, 2013

Mystery Ovens

There are some curious features along the historic railroad grades in Montana, particularly in Lincoln and Prairie counties. These are domed rock structures that resemble small huts. They are typically called Chinese ovens and serve as a good example of misunderstanding and faulty logic.

When Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, brought the line across Montana and the Northwest, he hired 15,000 Chinese as well as many Slavic and Italian workers to lay the tracks. Many believe that these domed rock features found along the Northern Pacific and other western rail routes where made by the Chinese. But these are bread ovens, and the Chinese did not make bread. The truth behind this odd idea is much more logical. Railroad laborers worked grueling hours in all kinds of weather and had little relaxation. It is little wonder that they wanted something to remind them of their homes far away. Italians could not survive without their fresh-baked bread. Every Italian home had an oven called a formello, usually outside, especially for baking bread. Bread baked in a charcoal fire has a special flavor. Thus tasty charcoal-baked bread was a staple. And so it was the Italian workers in particular, and to a lesser extent other European groups, that built these ovens to satisfy their hunger for fresh bread in the camps. It is not surprising that the ovens show little use. These camps were transient, moving frequently as the tracks spread across the Northwest. Bread ovens remain to document this dietary craving.

P.S. Here's the truth about Montana's Chinese pioneers.

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