Driving along State Road 40, you know you’re almost in Terre Haute when you see the Clabber Girl billboard. Seemingly just a quaint reminder of a bygone era, the pale yellow Art Deco-style sign with the inset clock advertises a product that gave rise not only to innumerable biscuits but an entire state. German immigrant Herman Hulman opened his first grocery store in Terre Haute in 1850, going on to establish a dry goods empire in the second half of the century. Leavening agents of the day offered inconsistent results for home bakers, so Hulman spent considerable effort in developing an alternative to the formulas then on the market, often a mixture of sour milk and cinders. Hulman and Company unveiled “Crystal” and “Dauntless” in 1879, two double-action baking powders that were activated first by water, then by heat. By 1899, Hulman had introduced Clabber Girl Baking Powder, which became a regional bakers’ favorite. Its label, which has remained unchanged since1923, features a rustic scene: a young girl presents a plate of biscuits while in the background a woman plucks a goose as children look on. The logo design was just one prong in a well-considered advertising campaign for the product. When Herman’s grandson Tony Hulman, Jr. took over the Clabber Girl line in 1931 he mounted an ambitious billboard promotion, hammering metal signs onto barns and general stores and sending sales reps as far south as Texas. The brand’s success led to the construction of a six-story baking powder plant, adjacent to the company’s headquarters at Ninth and Wabash. Hulman and Co. acquired a number of rival baking powder manufacturers in the 50s, in the midst of a shopping spree that included office buildings, shopping centers, banks, hotels, gas companies, media outlets and, perhaps most prominently, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, purchased in 1945 for $750,000.
As the company’s prominence grew, so did the city of Terre Haute. Beneficiaries of the Hulmans’ philanthropy have included the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Hulman International Airport, the Hulman Center, St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and the Vigo County Historical Museum. “I could make more money, perhaps, in other cities,” avowed patriarch Herman Hulman. “But I love Terre Haute and have worked for years to push her to the front rank, and I will continue to work and will never give up until that object is accomplished.”
A top-seller nationwide, with an 80 percent share of the Indiana market, Clabber Girl Baking Powder is still produced in the company’s 1932 Terre Haute plant. Nearby, Hulman and Company’s 1893 Romanesque Revival headquarters houses a museum devoted to the history of the brand that shaped Terre Haute.
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