WEST STOCKBRIDGE -- The town of West Stockbridge straddles the Williams River, tamed by the Shaker Mill dam. Down a side street sits Baldwin's, an old-fashioned emporium with a long, flavorsome history.
The Baldwin family has made fine Madagascar vanilla extract since 1865, but Henry Baldwin formally established Charles H. Baldwin & Sons 125 years ago, in 1888. The business moved 100 years ago to its present Center Street location.
Baldwin's is "an iconic business, a landmark and a great asset to the town," said Bob Salerno, president of the West Stockbridge Historical Society, which will honor the anniversary with a talk tomorrow evening.
Jackie Moffatt, along with Earl Baldwin Moffatt, her husband of four decades, have stewarded Baldwin's for the past 20 years. Her now 94-year-old father-in-law, Dick Moffatt, who married founder Henry's great-great-granddaughter, invited Jackie to learn the business when none of his five children showed an interest in taking over the company, she explained in a phone interview.
She didn't know what she was getting into, but, looking back, she said, it was probably the best thing she could have done.
Her husband has another full time job, but after work and on weekends he makes vanilla extract just as his ancestors did before him.
"All the kids in the family, that was their Saturday morning chore," she explained. "They had to box up bottles of vanilla and make stove polish."
The extraction process is still done by hand, without automatic machinery or bottling devices, and takes about two and a half weeks, Moffatt said.
"It's all done inside the copper percolator," she explained. "We chop the beans and place them in a cotton filter. We have a government license to use 190 proof alcohol to extract the oils from the vanilla beans."
The extract ages in a barrel.
"We always mix new vanilla with the previous vanilla," Moffatt explained. "That's the advice the great-great-great-grandfather gave: never use cheap beans, never tamper with the recipe, never let the oak barrels dry out. I always say, if everyone followed suit, there's a drop of 125 year old vanilla in every bottle."
After a month, extract is poured into bottles, where it continues aging if kept tightly capped in a cool dark place.
Baldwin's products sell to home cooks in-store and online, at local stores and co-ops, and by the gallon to ice cream makers, bakeries and restaurants.
"We just shipped out five quarts to a customer in Japan who runs a tearoom," Moffatt said.
The Baldwin's line also includes baking extracts, flavorings, a Bloody Mary Mix, and Walnut Russe, a popular topping for ice cream, pancakes and butternut squash.
While the store remains mostly unchanged -- "everything's still the same, the brass cash register, the heavy duty safe with one skeleton key, the display case," she said -- instead of the health and beauty merchandise her father-in-law distributed, Moffatt stocks classic candies such as Vanilla Bulls-Eyes, Turkish Taffy, Mary Janes and Malted Milk Balls, retro toys like Whoopee Cushions, greeting cards and novelty gifts, including Pittsfield-based Blue Q's quirky products.
"When I was little, in the back of the comic books, I loved to send away for magic kits and trick gum," she confessed. "I'm sure that's where it comes from, there's still a little practical joker in me."
She also installed a photo booth like the one she remembers at Newberry's in Pittsfield.
"Couples come in and have their anniversary photo taken every year," she said.
Baldwin's is an oasis of nostalgia for adults, and a wonderland for children.
"They come in with 50 cents and spend an hour looking around to see what they can get," said Moffatt, who always gives them a special deal on their purchases. "I love the look in their eyes when I say, ‘that's a nickel off today,' and they're like, ‘I have a nickel more to spend!'"
At holiday time, she said, people call Baldwin's "the stocking stuffer capital, because we have so many doodads, gadgets and gizmos. A child can come in with $5 and buy the entire family presents."
It's a destination spot, Salerno observed, for tourists, for people just driving by, for people in the county who want something different -- even for Governor Deval L. Patrick.
"It's unique and historic," Salerno said, "and it smells great when you go inside!"
Moffatt believes Baldwin's might have gone by the wayside if she hadn't come along. With no retirement plans and more than a dozen nieces and nephews, she hopes one of them will want to learn the business and take over.
"We'll see what happens," she said.
If you go ...
What: West Stockbridge Historical Society presents a talk and celebration of Baldwin's 125th anniversary
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: New Town Hall, Route 102, west Stockbridge
Admission: free, with refreshments