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Style Magazine

Slice of the Pie

Dec 29, 2009 07:12AM ● By Wendy Sipple

Lucy Wakefield had long been unhappy in her marriage to an abusive and jealous husband.

Nevertheless, according to a relative, “miserable pride forbade her to complain of her own choice and stir the stink among her friends,” in New Haven, Connecticut. However, when the couple traveled west to California in 1849, they agreed to end their union and go their separate ways.

Once Wakefield arrived in California, she headed directly to Placerville (then called Hangtown) to seek economic opportunity. Like the small number of other women who settled in early gold mining towns, she recognized that they could make a good living meeting the demands of hungry miners who missed the female culinary comforts of back home.

Wakefield made up her mind and went into the business of making pies. She purchased a log cabin from the Coleman brothers for $250, and made it both her residence and bakery. There she arose at dawn and put in 14-hour days, producing 240 pies a week, which she sold for a dollar each. Her gross earnings of nearly $25,000 over a two-year period allowed her to finally obtain a divorce in June 1851. Though the hard work proved exhausting, Wakefield now enjoyed a new-found freedom from her demanding husband, worked for herself, set her own hours and kept her earnings.

Yet, when a female friend back East wanted to come to the West, Lucy wrote of a woman’s lot in California, “There is no way for a woman to make money except by hard work of some sort...” requiring several years of “toil and hardship.” On the other hand, Wakefield noted that if she desired a husband, she could easily find one “with any amount of fortune as thick as toads after a rain.”

In 1851, Leslie Bryson, a relative from New Haven, visited Wakefield in Placerville. Bryson wrote in a letter to her father, “Lucy commands the respect and admiration of all good people in the county she dwells.” Her hard work “has imparted to her additional strength of mind; her knowledge of human nature far exceeds that of any woman I have ever met, her talents appear to me of a higher order than I supposed them to be at home...from all I have seen and heard of her in California, I respect her more than I ever did at home.”

That year, Wakefield wrote friends in New Haven that she intended to retire from her pie-baking venture. “I am tired of work and though I have not a very big pile, yet I am not ambitious of wealth. A competency is all I look for, for myself, and a little to give away when I wish, in addition to this, would make me quite satisfied.”

Lucy married C.C. Batterman on May 10, 1852. With profits from her pie baking business, the 32-year-old bride purchased Thomas & Young’s store and an adjoining lot. Seemingly, her laborious enterprise proved more successful than most, and Wakefield was able to enjoy a slice of the Gold Rush pie.”