Hilja and Donald Davis early 1980s

Lard the Size of an Egg is a series based on stories collected from New York Mills community members by historian and writer Chris Marcotte.  Marcotte spent six weeks in September and October at the Cultural Center Retreat House working on her 1897 murder mystery. Most of the stories Marcotte compiled while there focus on a family recipe, a story that went with it, and a photograph. This is part three of the seven-part series which will run weekly through December 21. 

Hilja Davis was known as the “Cookie Grandma” from the time her oldest grandchild could talk. until she passed away at the age of 106 in May 2016. You guessed it. Hilja always had cookies made, often still warm from the oven whenever grandchildren or anyone else came to visit.

Hilja Augusta Thompson was born on August 20, 1909, in Newton Township, New York Mills. Her parents, Herman, and Augusta (Blomberg) Thompson were both born in Finland. Herman immigrated in 1881 at the age of 24. When he was established and had a farm, he wrote back home for a “mail order” bride. The family lore is that Augusta’s twin sister Fredrika was supposed to be the bride, but that Augusta took her place and immigrated in 1888. Herman and Augusta were married following her arrival in New York Mills. 

Shortly after their fifth child, Hilja was born, Herman died. In fact, Hilja was baptized at his funeral. With four young children to care for, Augusta married Willie Maki, a widower, a year later. Augusta had three more sons, before Willie died of cancer in 1916. At that time Hilja was one of eight children! Plus, there were three step siblings.

In 1934 Hilja married Donald Davis. The couple lived in Kindred, N.D. for a few years, and then returned to New York Mills. They bought their farm and raised their family. After Hilja and Donald retired in 1971, they moved into town. This is where Hilja’s fame as the Cookie Grandma grew as the children in the neighborhood could either hear her mixer going or smell the cookies baking. Or both.

Chocolate Roll—A 

Family Tradition

First, a little bit more about Hilja, from one who knew her well. Pat (Davis) Riewe explained how her parents met. “My mother’s brother brought his army buddy, Donald Davis, home for a visit, and she kept him! At the time it was frowned upon for a Finlander to marry a non-Finlander, but that didn’t stop young love.

My mother was hardworking and very intelligent. She believed in the value of books, and when the schools consolidated, my folks bought the entire country school library. We had it out on our porch and I spent a lot of time reading (and still do). Mom was a no-nonsense person, and therefore had no sense of humor, except on April Fool’s Day—she got us every time. Generally, we’d all be coming down in the morning and she’d tell us there was something unusual out in the yard and we fell for it every time! 

I swear, Mom baked bread every day. We’d come home from school and there was always something she had just made. Along with the bread was cookies, cakes, and pies. I helped with the baking when I got older, but I have never made a pie.”

The story of the Chocolate Roll is shared by Pat, and her sister-in-law Shirley, who had married Pat’s brother, Donald. “Hilja was always nice to everybody. She was a gracious hostess who catered to everyone. She made you feel special. Of course, she made cookies and other baked goods, all from scratch. She enjoyed hosting holiday meals, with as many of her children and their families as could come. 

I remember that she made you what you wanted for your birthday meal. I, like many others in the family requested Chow Mein. Oh, my goodness, that woman made the best Chow Mein! And always a birthday cake.”

As Pat stated earlier, Hilja was no nonsense. Shirley shares an example. “I was in Hilja’s garden with her, such beautiful flowers she grew, and there was a snake. And I’m very afraid of snakes. Anyway, there was a snake, so Hilja just grabbed her hoe, hacked it in half, and we continued our walk.” 

There were several cookies that were made only at Christmas—date balls, prune tarts, and chocolate roll. The chocolate roll was kept in the freezer until just before it was time to be served. It was very special. 

“I asked for the recipe after the first time I tasted it,” Shirley said. “Now my daughter, Jody wants to learn. Maybe this Christmas.” Pat recalls the chocolate roll too. “It is very good. I don’t remember ever making it, but I’m sure I did, after Mom couldn’t.” 

I am glad Shirley suggested this recipe and that Pat and Shirley had so much to share about the Cookie Grandma, a woman they both admired. A friend and I tested the Chocolate Roll recipe and gave it a double thumbs up. It reminded me of fudge. The coconut made it even more decadent!

Recipes and photos from the Lard the Size of an Egg stories can be seen on the New York Mills Cultural Arts Center website www.kulcher.org.