Spalding’s: The family stories behind the famous donuts

Joyce Leverett remembers the day in 1935 when she went with her father to a small grocery that was closing at Third and Race streets to buy a used cash register for their family bakery.

“I thought we were so uptown because it had a bell on it and numbers that popped up,” she said. “Prior to that, we kept the money under the counter in a cigar box.”

The cash register quit working several years ago, but it has an honored place on the counter of Spalding’s Bakery, where people have been lining up to buy famously delicious donuts for more than eight decades.

Even more remarkably, Leverett, 89, works behind that counter five days a week, filling orders for doughnuts, pastries, cakes, cookies and pies that her two daughters, two of her grandchildren, a nephew, and other relatives and employees bake fresh each day.

Leverett and her daughters, Martha Edwards and Catherine Barton, won’t divulge the secret recipe for their hand-cut, honey-glazed donuts. But they will talk about the history of Spalding’s Bakery, one of Lexington’s oldest family-owned, woman-run businesses.

“We’re the strong women of the Spalding family, keeping the business together,” Leverett said. “We’ve had a good work ethic from the very beginning.”

The tradition began with Leverett’s grandfather, James A. Spalding, who ran a small wholesale bakery off Georgetown Street from the 1880s until 1909 and delivered bread to local groceries in a horse-drawn wagon.

Spalding wasn’t able to teach his son the trade. In 1909, a horse bolted and he was thrown from his delivery wagon. He landed on a streetcar rail and was paralyzed for the last 19 years of his life. He died in 1928, six weeks after Leverett was born.

“But I think my father may have had DNA in his system about the bakery,” she said. As a young man, Bowman J. Spalding worked at bakeries in Louisville and Springfield, where he met his wife, Zelma.

They moved to Lexington in the mid-1920s. Spalding took a job at Grocers’ Baking Co.’s Honey-Krust bread factory at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson streets, a building that now houses West Sixth Brewery.

“He thought that was going to be the wave of the future,” Leverett said. “Then I think he found out working with modern machinery was not his forte.”

In 1929, the Spaldings opened a wholesale bakery at 741 North Limestone, not far from their house on Rand Avenue. The business grew, and in 1934 they bought a building between the two, at East Sixth Street and North Limestone.

“That was in the Depression, so we lived downstairs and we rented out the upstairs,” Leverett said. “We were working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so what else did we need?”

The family would soon take over the upstairs apartment, too, and later move to a house near Henry Clay’s Ashland Estate.

The Spaldings sold from their store and delivered to groceries, restaurants and caterers all over town. The bakery never closed; two men worked 12-hour shifts to keep the coal-fired oven at a constant temperature.

In their second year of business, Zelma Spalding decided they should close on Christmas. That created a problem. “The door hadn’t been closed in so long, they couldn’t find the key,” Leverett said. “So Mother got a hammer and some nails and we closed on Christmas Day.”

By the late 1930s, Spalding’s doughnuts had become a sensation. The first batch would be fried about midnight for couples on their way home from dancing at Joyland Park, Dixieland Gardens and other night spots.

Around the holidays, the bakery also used its ovens for cooking country hams, lambs and turkeys.

When food was rationed during World War II, Spalding’s started closing on Tuesdays — a tradition that has endured. “We added Monday when we got older,” Leverett said.

Leverett graduated from Transylvania University, did graduate work at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and in 1949 married Charles Leverett. She became a single mother in 1958 and moved back above the bakery with her daughters. She taught school for 37 years, mostly at Bryan Station Junior High and Tates Creek High School.

Bowman Spalding’s passion was baking, but his wife also valued higher education.

“The two things you were excused from the bakery because of were going to school, which is why I went as long as possible, and church, which I developed an affinity for,” said Barton, Leverett’s elder daughter, who became a school teacher and a Disciples of Christ minister.

Edwards earned a degree in music education, but she decided instead to work with her grandfather and uncle, James Spalding, at the bakery. She also taught water aerobics for two decades. “I considered it job security,” she said. “I would make people skinny and then feed them doughnuts.”

Zelma Spalding died in 1968; her husband in 1991. Leverett retired from teaching that year and started full-time work at the bakery in 1992 with her brother and younger daughter. When Barton isn’t teaching special education at Deep Springs Elementary, she works in the bakery, as does her daughter, Emily; Edwards’ son, Robert; and Leverett’s nephew, Jim Spalding.

Tragedy struck in November 2004. An armed robber broke into the bakery on a day it was closed and attacked James Spalding, then 79. He retired. The bakery closed.

“I was devastated,” said Edwards, who was determined to reopen in a new spot. She bought land on Winchester Road across from the Jif peanut butter factory. Spalding’s Bakery reopened there in 2005.

The new building resembles the 1880s structure that was the bakery’s home for 70 years. The counter, work table, display cases and cash register were moved over from the old building at Limestone and Sixth, which is now the Arcadium bar. But Edwards invested in new baking equipment — and air conditioning, which the old building didn’t have.

“That old bakery in the summertime was the hottest place you’ve ever been,” Edwards said. “That’s why we have such youthful complexions!”

Doughnuts are now about 75 percent of Spalding’s business. Tens of dozens are bought each Sunday by churches, including Good Shepherd Episcopal, which has been a customer for 60 years. That’s Leverett’s church, and she said a former priest referred to Spalding’s doughnuts as “the second sacrament.”

Edwards is the first to arrive at work each morning, at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. The bakery opens at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday. It closes at noon, although Leverett says latecomers sometimes bang on the door pleading, “Don’t you have a few left?”

Three generations of Spaldings work there, and a fourth is in training. Leverett’s great-grandson, Henry, 6, likes to cut doughnuts, decorate cookies and taste-test everything.

Customers also come in multiple generations, and from all walks of life. “Sometimes you’ll see a local prostitute in line next to a county attorney,” Barton said with a smile. Even though service is fast and efficient, the line often grows long.

“We have the best customers in the world,” Leverett said. “They come in happy and they leave happier.”

At least one couple who met in line got married. Several longtime customers had Spalding’s doughnuts buried in their caskets with them, Edwards has been told.

Customers who move away from Lexington often return when visiting. Tourists have been finding their way to the bakery since 2012, when The New York Times wrote a feature about Spalding’s and several other local doughnut shops.

Edwards declined to say how many doughnuts Spalding’s sells each week.

“We can’t count that high,” Leverett joked. “None of us majored in math.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen