Our February story about Seattle’s Rose Gilbreath Charters and her role in the founding of Continental Mills and Krusteaz pie-crust mix in 1932 triggered a flood of emails from readers fascinated by this little piece of history we’d unearthed.
We heard from longtime Continental Mills employees, their spouses and children, a descendant of the Gilbreath family (whose daughter actually wears Rose’s ring!), and in perhaps the biggest plot twist of all, we found the grandson of one of members of the bridge club that Continental Mills had long referenced as part of its founding narrative — even though, until now, the names of the members were lost to history.
“My grandmother Olga Kahlke was one of the four women in the bridge club,” Kirkland resident John Hartley wrote in an email.
This caught our eye because, to that point, no one we’d spoken to at Continental Mills nor anyone we’d found in the course of our reporting about Rose Gilbreath Charters could verify the existence of a bridge club, nor the four members who had allegedly started Krusteaz.
Well, as it turns out, co-founder Rose — who started Continental Mills with her husband, James Charters — was in a bridge club with Kahlke. And Hartley, Kahlke’s grandson, says Kahlke helped the Charterses get Continental Mills and Krusteaz off the ground.
“Olga loved food. She was an outstanding cook and she was also extremely social,” Hartley said in a recent phone interview. “She also was quite an accomplished singer, giving performances throughout the Pacific Northwest and California.”
Kahlke was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1878, the oldest of four kids. When she was 10, her parents died of diphtheria within six months of each other. She was adopted by an affluent local family, eventually studying vocals and art at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.
Kahlke and her husband, Arthur, moved to Seattle in September 1901, traveling by train from Illinois one day after they were married.
Kahlke was 54 in 1932, Hartley says, and an active participant in the bridge club. Even though she died before he was born, he heard many stories about Kahlke from his grandfather Arthur; his mother, Anne Hartley; and his aunt, Marjorie Rogers.
Hartley heard stories about the women of the bridge club complaining that they were spending “more time making treats than having fun,” and they decided to do something about it.
Charters and her husband started selling her “just add water” pie-crust mix and started Continental Mills. Initially, it was a labor of love. Kahlke, Charters and their compatriots packed the pie-crust mix, kept the books and ordered supplies. They sold the product to mom-and-pop grocery stores around the Capitol Hill and Montlake neighborhoods.
This was during the Great Depression, Hartley says, and money was so tight that his aunt Marjorie job-shared at a University of Washington library. His grandfather Arthur worked at a bank as a calling officer, calling on accounts and drumming up business, but was laid off by 1932 when banks were hit the hardest.
Hartley laughed when asked if Kahlke’s role in the company helped to sustain her family.
“No,” he said. “What my mom and my aunt always said was they took any penny and plowed it back into the company. Everything was on such a thin margin and they had to be so careful because there was so little money.”
By 1942, Hartley’s father, Talbot, had a full-time job as an accountant but also began working at Continental Mills on Saturdays, loading boxcars with Krusteaz baking mixes.
“There was now starting to be a huge manpower shortage, so my dad had a regular job, and then on Saturdays he worked at Krusteaz until he himself had to go into the Army,” Hartley says.
The only check Kahlke saw from Continental Mills came when she decided to sell her shares shortly after the end of World War II, Hartley said, adding that his grandmother sold partly because of her age, but also because “there was a fear at that time that the U.S. would go back into a depression because the stimulus of the second World War was over and there was nothing to keep the economy going.”
This would’ve been in late 1945 or early 1946. Kahlke died in late 1947. But unlike Charters, she had children to help carry on her legacy.
“What my mom and my aunt talked about was my grandmother’s experience. They saw the business, but they mostly saw how social she was and how she loved to cook,” Hartley says.