Two historical collisions have happened in West, Texas.
The first was in 1896 when two locomotives crashed in a publicity stunt known as the Crash at Crush, a fictional town established just for the event near present-day West.
The second happened around 1953 when kielbasa sausage collided with Grandmother Honey’s Old World kolache dough recipe. The result was the klobasniki, the Czech name for what we like to call the sausage kolache.
It’s hard to imagine a world without those wonderful fresh-baked buns that bear the name of their sweeter counterparts.
That event put The Village Bakery on the map. Known as “The First All-Czech Bakery in Texas,” the bakery boasts that its delicately sweet, moist dough is homemade, using only the freshest ingredients. That is what sets apart its Czech pastries such as the kolache, strudel and buchta, a Czech coffee cake. Specialty breads, lattice- and meringue-topped pies and gourmet cookies turn the bakery case into a smorgasbord of Czech-infused culinary delights.
Wendel Montgomery, who died in 2003, was a pharmacist who owned The Old Corner Drug Store on East Oak Street in West. He had made a living as a chemist, understanding the proper proportions and properties of elements that could be combined to create medicinal concoctions.
“The idea of a bakery came out of a conversation around our kitchen table in our home on the corner of Marable and Broadway,” said daughter Mimi Montgomery Irwin, 67, who now manages the bakery. “Mother was using the kitchen as an office and the oven as a filing cabinet.”
More of a decorator and seamstress than a baker, Georgia Montgomery, now 95, also was the business manager for the store.
She is still very aware of what goes on in the bakery and has a peach kolache every day,” Mimi said.
Mimi’s grandmother, Honey Morris, was the true cook in the family and possessed the cherished family recipes that yielded the wonderful pastries that people in West traditionally enjoyed at church functions and family gatherings.
“But there was no place in West to buy kolaches day in and day out,” Mimi said.
That’s when Wendel, Georgia and Honey reformulated the traditional recipes for commercial purposes. They enlisted the “two Hattis,” Hatti Lednicky and Hatti Kocian, who were both well known for their baking skills in the West community.
The women were soon churning out dozens and dozens of kolaches filled with the fruits and spices indigenous to Czechoslovakia. Apricot, apple, prune, poppy seed, peach and cherry kolaches were the rage with locals and travelers alike, and the Village Bakery gained a loyal following.
The bakery was behind Wendel’s drug store for years and in 1969 moved to its current location across the street at 113 E. Oak St., just six blocks off the interstate. The family also owns The Village Shop next door, which was the original dry goods store that dates back to 1929.
More American flavors such as strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and cream cheese joined their Czech cousins and those wonderful klobasnikis in the bakery case.
The notoriety and popularity of the pastries expanded as quickly as the yeast dough was rising, and so did the interest in Czech culture.
The Montgomerys were among the founders in 1976 of the annual Labor Day Czech festival known as Westfest, making the community truly the “Czech Point of Texas.”
The event has grown through the years and includes polka music and dancing, food, crafts and plenty of socializing.
It’s no wonder, the state Legislature declared West “Home of the Official Kolache of the Texas Legislature” and the Czech Heritage Capital of Texas in 1997.
The Village Bakery still furnishes kolaches for the booth operated by the Kiwanis Club as a fundraiser.
The bakery also provides kolaches every Monday for the residents at the West Rest Haven nursing home. It also donates to the local senior center, which is a division of Meals and Wheels.
“In some places, seniors get Jell-O for dessert, but in West they get kolaches,” Mimi said. “That is a way we give back to the community. It’s very important for us to do that to honor our seniors.”
Heritage baked right in
Staying true to their Czech roots is evident in the pastries served to customers every day. Kolache actually means “round” or “wheel,” and the circles of tradition are not broken at The Village Bakery.
“My mother’s family were Czechs who came from Moravia through Galveston. My father’s family were Anglos who came to East Texas from Tennessee,” said Mimi. It was obviously a marriage made in bakery heaven.
The Moravian Czechs and their traditions are slightly different from the Bohemian Czechs, Mimi explained. Moravia is closer to Hungary in the more rural, picturesque eastern region of the Czech Republic. On the other hand, Bohemia is in the more developed western side near Germany.
“That really does affect our daily business,” said Jamie Allnut, marketing manager for the bakery. “We don’t go far off the beaten path, and people appreciate that.”
In fact, customers are inquisitive about the true nature of the pastries baked at The Village Bakery.
“We develop our products in quantities where everything is made from scratch,” Mimi said. “We still make our dough like your grandmother would make it. One of our taglines is ‘The difference is in the dough.’ People understand artisanal, and they are interested in seeing a tradition continued.”
That’s why The Village Bakery hasn’t changed much, with historic photos on the walls and the feeling that you just landed back in your grandmother’s lap.
“Regardless of how busy we are, we all enjoy a comfort food,” Allnut said.
Even with about 90 percent of their business coming from the interstate, people come in most every day and share their memories of coming to The Village Bakery growing up.
“We have an incredible following,” Mimi said. “We have Baylor alumni come in and bring their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.”
Loyal patrons may discover a few surprises, such as the chocolate espresso kolache, a chocolate and cream variation of the prized pastry.
“It is a tribute to my father because he loved chocolate and was a great candy maker,” Mimi said.
She is proud of her parents’ contribution to the culinary landscape of West and beyond.
“It’s like who invented the hot dog,” she said. “My dad, one day, was looking at a poppyseed kolache, which is oblong instead of round, and he thought of the hot dog and tried cooking the kielbasa sausage in it. He did the same thing with ground sausage and the buchta. That’s become a real favorite for entertaining.” She credits her mother with adding an artistic flair to the business.
“She got into cake and cookie decorating,” Mimi said. “Her talent was in sewing, and she has always been talented with clothing, textile and design,” said Mimi. Today, customers can even purchase a few non-edible souvenirs such as CDs of the Czech music that is played in the bakery, aprons that are popular at Westfest and whimsical T-shirts with catchy phrases such as “It’s a kolache state of mind” and “A rose is a rose unless it’s a kolache.”
The Village Bakery also sells Czech heritage cookbooks that include its famous kolache recipe to benefit the Kiwanis Club.
Promoting West Czech-style
The first Czech-focused Christmas event was celebrated in West in 2012 with an old-fashioned tribute to St. Nicholas, a patron saint in Czechoslovakia.
The event included a Christmas market, and The Village Bakery created a Moravian Christmas spice cookie shaped like St. Nick and outlined in the traditional white frosting.
“We reached out to tourists and the entire community to bring them to West by working with our downtown businesses,” Mimi said. “We want to market the community yearround.”
The Village Bakery participated in the Texas Travel Fair, an annual trade show for travel industry professionals that was hosted in Waco in 2012. It plans to participate again at the 2013 event in Lubbock.
“We consider ourselves the unofficial tourist center of West,” said Mimi, who also serves on the Historic Waco Foundation board.
The bakery has started to venture serving beyond its local storefront.
“We finally started shipping our fruit-based kolaches and buchta this last Christmas,” Mimi said.
Keeping the stories alive and making visiting West a true cultural experience is the secret ingredient to the bakery’s success, she said.
“In West, not only do you get authentic kolaches, but you hear the tales,” she said. “We will give talks on the famous Crash at Crush and will even take them down there to see where it happened.”
Texas Historic Tours brings students and adults to West as part of their trip down Interstate 35.
“We do the Czech routine,” Mimi said. “It’s great to have them here because when they grow up they will remember us.”
Carrying on the tradition
Mimi hasn’t always lived in West. She spent 25 years living in New York City where she worked in the fashion industry and still has a consulting business, Gramercy Associates, that calls her back to the Big Apple and Los Angeles for short trips.
“I was an executive with Foley’s for a number of years and moved to New York City to form a corporate office, Federated Department Stores, which evolved into Macy’s,” she said. That role and her background in merchandising took her on extensive trips to China and India to develop products.
She found her way back home when family duties called. As an only child, she knew it was up to her to take care of the family business.
“When my father passed away and my mother’s health began to decline, I considered selling the bakery, but I realized what a niche we fill in the state’s cultural experience,” she said. “I felt obligated to carry on the tradition. We have an extended family of people we serve and who enjoy bringing their grandchildren back here.”
Somehow the quaint traditions of baking and serving and conversing have become part of the ambience of the bakery, she said.
“It’s a time warp, and quite honestly, as transient as life is, we are standing for something in the middle of all this. We are a haven for memories.”
The Village Bakery
113 E. Oak St. in West
Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The bakery is on Facebook.