Old Saba bread sign sees light of day once more
By ANDREW MCGINN
His parents may have hailed originally from Syria, he may have had this thing for nibbling raw hamburger, and then there’s the whole issue of that funky name, but Saba Saba wasn’t the teensiest bit foreign.
Unless you consider Nebraska (his place of birth) a separate country.
More than 90 years ago, though, when the three most popular names for boys were Robert, John and William, Saba rolled into Jefferson to open a bakery.
His competition in town at the rival Northside Bakery, owned and operated by the Murphy family, didn’t think the people of Jefferson would go for bread, cookies or much anything else made by a guy with such a funny-sounding name.
Stella Murphy herself reportedly was dismissive of Saba when he set up shop in the fall of 1925.
“When he came to town, she said, ‘That little Jew boy will never make it,’ ” explained Pauline Borst, Saba’s adopted daughter. “She was wrong about him being a Jew. And she was wrong about him not making it.”
Saba went on to become a local legend — so much so that had Jerry Kelley found an antique sign in storage from the Northside Bakery, it may have been met with a collective shrug.
Instead, the 88-year-old Jefferson resident knew he had something special on his hands when he unearthed an old wooden sign advertising two loaves of Saba’s bread for 15 cents.
Kelley recently found the sign tucked behind a file cabinet on the porch of his farmhouse, where he placed it some time ago and then promptly forgot about it.
“It’s been there 25 years or more,” he guessed.
How he acquired the hand-painted sign, he’s no longer sure, but Kelley made up for lost time, taking the sign around town on something of a celebratory tour once he realized what he had.
“It’s not much,” Kelley said of the sign, “but it means a lot to people.”
Memories of Saba’s bakery — those doughnuts of his, in particular — still come oozing out of people like custard filling.
“You can get a million stories from people about Saba,” Borst said.
In business on the Square right up until his death in 1976 at age 74 — a run of more than 50 years — Saba will forever be the sultan of gluten to Jeffersonians of a certain age.
There’s a good chance, in fact, you’ve never even heard of the Northside Bakery, mainly because Saba bought them out in 1929.
Saba’s daughter, who was just a year old when she was adopted in the ’40s by Saba and his wife Edna, has come to appreciate her family’s place in local lore more than ever.
“I didn’t appreciate it, of course, growing up,” said Borst, now 73, who worked at the bakery all through high school before her graduation in 1963. “Now everybody has memories of the bakery.”
By happenstance, Borst unexpectedly laid eyes on the sign as Kelley made the rounds with it, showing it to anyone he could.
“He was walking out of the Dollar General store with that sign,” Borst said, “and I was pulling in.
“That would never happen in a million years, except in Jefferson, Iowa.”
Naturally, Borst had questions.
“She said, ‘I’ll give you anything you want for the sign,’” Kelley explained. “I said, ‘You’re not going to give me anything, because I’m going to give it to you.’ ”
“It was supposed to happen,” he said.
As Bill Allen, Borst’s partner and former classmate, explained, “She came home crying.”
Allen, too, has his share of memories about Saba and his bakery.
His dad, Harold Allen, ran the meat department at the United Food Market and reliably cut two T-bones every Saturday for Saba, who loved his steak just barely seared.
“Saba was friendly with everyone,” Allen said.
He was also generous, Borst said, delivering his leftover bread every weekend to less fortunate families around town.
According to a local newspaper report in 1929, an average Saturday would see the shop crank out 4,450 loaves of bread, 2,100 doughnuts, 7,000 rolls and buns, 100 pies and 100 cakes.
Saba’s Golden Krust Bakery at one time employed 15 people and delivered goods to 15 surrounding towns.
Today, all that remains are his secret doughnut recipes, which have been handed down to three subsequent Jefferson bakers.
Darrell Blackburn, who worked for Saba for four decades, initially kept the recipes alive before passing them on to Randy Bunkers in 1980. In 2017, they entered into the safekeeping of Matt Schroeder with his purchase of Bunkers Dunkers.
What made Saba’s bakery so legendary, and able to endure more than 50 years in business, was all in the taste.
“He used the best ingredients possible,” Allen said.