Mmmm. Donuts. Tasty and they have history too. Apparently Midcoast Maine put the hole in the donut. And, right in Rockland, the Wotton family made donuts for decades. Last month Patti Moran Wotton asked me to dig up the history on the family business for a special art exhibit: The Hole History Show, which will feature donut-inspired art in downtown Rockland, ME. You can see this story and more crazy donut goodness this Friday, June 3 at the First Friday Artwalk, or head to Assemetrick Arts & Win Wilder Hall anytime till June 25 to enjoy the donutty goodness.
By Meghan Vigeant
During the late 1930s the Wotton’s dining room table in Owl’s Head, Maine was often piled high with cream puffs, pies, cakes and brownies made by Beulah Wotton and bound for sale around Rockland. According to Beulah’s daughter, Joyce Ross -Wooster, the lawyers in town just loved Beulah’s pies. But it was challenging to make so many different baked goods. Joyce shared the story during a phone call. Her mother kept praying to find the one thing she could make and sell. “The first donut Mumma made was so hard it bounced on the floor. Then God gave her the recipe and she’d been making them ever since.” That was the beginning of Wotton’s Donuts.
The Wotton family doesn’t remember the exact start date of the donut business – likely in the early 1940s - but we know they sold donuts in shops from Tenant’s Harbor to Camden for over 30 years. Eventually the Wotton’s moved into Rockland where the operation became a local institution, famous for delighting taste buds young and old. Joyce remembers her parents used to hand out free donuts to the kids waiting at the bus stop on Camden Street. John Curry wrote a comment on Facebook about his memories of Wotton’s Donuts, “As a kid, I could easily eat half the bag!” Mary Lear added to the comment thread: “Every Thursday us CMP girls would send our meter man to Wotton's to get donuts cause they were so good. We couldn't wait for Thursdays.”
Making donuts was a family operation. Beulah’s husband, Ed Wotton, built the kitchen facilities at the back of their home in Rockland. Each afternoon, when their son, Sherwood Lee, came home from school, he’d helped fry the donuts and make deliveries. When he headed off for World War II, Ed joined the donut operation full-time.
Many of the Wotton grandkids remember the honor of helping on Donut Days. Kristal Wotton Bouwens wrote in an email: “The smells were fantastic. We had to keep a distance from the hot tub of fat” She remembers wearing paper hats and doing special jobs: “shaking the hot donuts in a paper bag of cinnamon-sugar to coat them,” and sealing up the donut bags with a twist and red plastic tape. “The bags were pre-printed with a ‘Wotton’s Donuts’ logo and I remember being so proud of that. Grammie and Grampa were so patient with us kids and now as an adult I can really appreciate that. I'm sure we made their work more difficult for them instead of actually helping!”
Ed and Beulah’s grandson Sherwood especially remembers the donut holes. “I used to eat raw donut holes. I still love donut dough.” Kristal wrote that her grandparents put the dough from the hole back into the batch, except on Halloween, when they would fry the holes separately hand out donut holes as treats.
Most of the time the Wotton’s sold only two flavors: white (plain) and cinnamon. On very rare occasions, about once or twice a year, they made chocolate donuts, the only kind of donut Joyce loved. As the daughter of two die-hard donut-makers, Joyce never really enjoyed donuts. She once asked her mom if she had gotten sick on donuts ever. “No,” came the answer. She just didn’t care for them. But, like many others, she loved the chocolate donuts.
Donut making is not for the faint at heart. Beulah and Ed would get out of bed at 3:30 am and start making donut dough. Their grandson, Sherwood, remembers when they got an electric timer setup to heat up the lard. “It was a big deal. I think maybe they could sleep in just a bit longer, as they had to start frying by four o’clock in the morning.” Their day was spent making dough, frying donuts, cooling donuts, bagging donuts, and cleaning the massive donut equipment and mixing bowls. They didn’t wrap up till usually three o’clock in the afternoon. Joyce says, “It was a long day for them, but I never heard them complain.”
The process to make the famous Wotton donuts was strenuous and hot. Joyce ran through the entire process over the phone. First, ingredients were mixed in a big floor model mixer. Then the dough was cooled overnight in the icebox (before they got a refrigerator). Beulah and Ed would roll out the dough for four or five hours and cut them into donut shapes with a donut cutter, returning the holes back to the dough to make more donuts. Tracy Wotton Littlefield can still picture her grandparents working, “cutting them so fast” and “then plop, plop, plop into the large fryer.” They always used real lard. Joyce remembers someone tried to talk her father into using a different kind of oil, but he wouldn’t budge. After a flip in the fryalator, they fished out the donuts with a long stick and placed them on special trays in the cooling window open to the outside. Some donuts would get a coating of cinnamon and sugar by shaking them in a bag. The donuts were bagged up, and then Ed headed out with the deliveries. Though, some folks came right to the door of the house to buy their donuts. Everyone who bought donuts at the house got a baker’s dozen – “that’s 13 donuts, in case you didn’t know,” Joyce says with smile in her voice.
The Wottons were a fine team. Joyce never remembers seeing her parents argue or fight. “If they needed help they asked for it, and they always had time to help others.” But it didn’t last forever. Joyce says, “Dad made donuts till the day he died at 75.” “He had cancer and didn’t tell anyone about it. His heart just stopped.” The loss hit Beulah hard. “She couldn’t do alone. They had done it together all those years.” It was 1975 and Beulah decided to close up shop for good.
Joyce won’t tell what makes a Wotton’s donut special. It’s a secret recipe she says. But Beulah and Ed’s youngest grandson, Brett Ross, and his wife Dianna have started making donuts with the family recipe just for fun. “Ma agrees they are pretty close,” he wrote on Facebook, “I think we've perfected them.” The Wotton’s fryalator hasn’t sizzled in decades. The house and donut kitchen on Camden Street has been replaced by Home Depot. However, with a recipe, real lard, and love, the Wotton’s donut tradition continues.
This story was commissioned by Patricia Moran Wotton for the Hole History Show, an exhibit co-presented by Assymettrik Arts and Win Wilder Hall in 2016.
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Do you have a memory of Wotton’s Donuts? Here are more memories of Wotton’s Donuts gathered via Facebook:
“In the late 1930s I delivered cupcakes and sandwiches in middle and high school for 25 cents an hour on Saturdays, before the donuts. I delivered to Newberrys and Woolworths for the workers, which seemed kind of funny since they had a lunch counter. She made cupcakes with a frosting made with real strawberries.” – Vera Mathieson
“I helped work with mom on donut days when I didn't have school. My favorite was chocolate day. I'd eat the donut holes until Gramps decided to bag them up and sell them too. 20 years after closing up the shop which they ran in between house and garage, the house still smelled of fried donuts, lard and especially nutmeg.” – Tracy Wotton Littlefield (granddaughter of Ed & Beulah Wotton)
“Us PenBay kids had a bus stop right near there, and if you had a nickel you could buy a hot cinnamon or plain donut right out of the fryer. Man, what a great way to start the school day! Very nice lady.” – Larry Hedaa
“I remember prior to the 1960s, that Ed used to deliver donuts that his wife made to my parents store. Brickleys Community Store, 49 Union Street. I still have the glass container that they were sold from.” - Claire Coffey
“I received the Wotton donut balls in my May basket for many years as a kid from Joyce's children…we grew up in the neighborhood.. never forget..and I still give out May baskets myself.” – Jo Philbrook
“Loved these donuts liked them all but my favorite was chocolate can't get good ones anymore.” – Mildred Burch
“As a kid I could easily eat half the bag!!!!! How bout a remake???? All variety's were so GOOD!” - John Curry
“Loved the donuts.” – Tammy Gray
“Emmmm they were delicious.” – Henry Rocky Judecki