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Famed pie maker back at it

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news Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

NISSWA — Don’t shut your pie hole — Mary Etta Durham is back in the pie business. 

It’s a craft she knows well. 

The famed pie maker from Jenkins has been producing pies at a prodigious rate since she was a teenager. Now, at 72, she’s not ready to slow down. 

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“She’d be bored sitting home,” said her sister, Elsie Van Horn, 65. The sister duo has a smooth system for pie making, sprinkling in laughter along the way. By mid-morning the other day they had 63 fruit pies stacked in a rack, ready for the oven. 

The pies, marketed as Grandma Bettie Jane’s pies, are  crafted in the busy bakery at Schaefer’s Foods in Nisswa. The name commemorates grocer Ted Schaefer’s late mother. 

Durham made pies for years, working with the Oasis, the Uptown Bakery, Nisswa Bakery and Sugar Shack before going out on her own. With the Hallbecks ,,who formerly owned Sibley Station, Durham set up in a little building and began baking. She made a couple hundred pies a day.

“We were busy,” she said. 

The work day started at 4 a.m. and ended about 2 p.m. The first year Durham estimates she made 22,000 pies. Her knack in the kitchen was apparent early. No doubt that was partly inspired by growing up with 11 siblings. Her parents had seven girls and five boys. Durham said her grandmother was a big pie baker and made a lot of pies for the family. 

At age 15, Durham was working at Lost Lake Lodge. Carol Ruttger hired Durham to work at their resort on Whitefish and later was part of the Pequot Lakes School Board who hired Durham as a cook. 

Durham worked at the school for nearly 30 years, retiring as head cook in 2000. She started her lucrative pie business on the side in 1993. By her school retirement, Durham had a contract with a Twin Cities distributor and her pies were selling at Byerly’s and Lund’s grocery stores, in addition to being sold at a variety of lakes area locations. Schaefer’s bakery took 100 of her pies a day and 200 on Saturdays. Durham’s sister, Elsie Van Horn, also ordered pies for her Frontier Cafe. 

Durham said after a time with her own bakery business, she tired of all the bookkeeping and in 2001 she sold her business to Sportland Cafe owners Ron and Cyndi Burnard. 

She continued to work for them until last winter. Then after a short time off, she started working with Schaefer’s bakery. Her sister worked for her at Sportland and the two are back together at Schaefer’s. 

Van Horn, who lives in the Velvet Beach area near Merrifield, said they get along well, as did their entire large family. “I can’t remember fighting over anything,” Van Horn said. 

They work side by side Monday through Thursday. 

Durham said it’s important to enjoy what you do and she is proud of what she’s accomplished. 

“As my grandfather used to say, ‘Always do a good job no matter what you do,’” Durham said. 

Karin Olson, bakery manager at Schaefer’s, oversees a small but busy work area with 16 to 20 full- and part-time employees. The bakery operates 24 hours a day in the summer. It’s growing cake business, for weddings and other occasions, has three full-time cake decorators. They’ve never turned down a cake order, Olson said, adding they can do one with a two-hour notice. 

Olson said they were fortunate to add Durham and Van Horn to the mix. They laughed as they worked Wednesday. Olson said the sisters are a lot of fun and keep the atmosphere light and joking.

“You have to enjoy your jobs to get up everyday and do it,” Olson said. “It’s very important. 

“They were just a plus to us. They were a great addition.”

The Grandma Bettie Jean’s pies are sold by the slice, half or whole pie. At Schaefer’s best selling pies are apple and bumbleberry. Van Horn and Durham share a favorite — pumpkin pie. With frozen pies, Olson said customers from the Twin Cities have been able to purchase them and keep them for the drive back. 

“It started off gangbusters right away,” Olson said of the pie sales. She’d like to sell 500 a week this summer. Since the pies were added on April 18, the sisters put more than 1,000 together. The staff at Schaefer’s handles the baking. 

“It’s a good addition,” said store owner Ted Schaefer. “We like to sell quality things and that’s what she’s making top quality pies. It’s good for both of us. It’s been fun.”

Schaefer said his own favorite is a Dutch apple but after trying a peach, he may have a rival for the top spot. 

Since the sisters started making the pies, Schaefer’s is selling an average of 200 a week. Durham knew the total in an instant — 1,050 pies since the start in April. 

Schaefer said: “I just can’t believe how many they can make in a day, it’s amazing.”

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5852.

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