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Belgi Manufacturing


I mused aloud to Casaletto that those cast iron and steel cookie irons must have represented something pretty important to those immigrant women to pack their weight all the way over here from France and Belgium.

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Cookie Iron

Louis "Cas" Casaletto reached over a pile of boxes in his garage and retrieved a galette from the eight arranged in a semi-circle on the east wall.

"Here's the original," he said. "The one my grandmother, Henrietta Rons, brought with her when she emigrated from Belgium around 1889 with her father, husband and infant son."

He handed it over to me -- a rectangular cast iron press made by joining two four-by-six-inch plates with side hinges. Each plate had a ringed, 14-inch handle attached to the bottom. I took it. Felt its weight. Looked it over. There was a large heart cast on the front plate.

"And here's one of the round plates they used to set into the top of the old coal stoves with a slot to hold the iron so it could be turned," Casaletto said.

He took the galette and set it in the groove to show me how it worked, then smiled and continued his story about how, in the late 1950s, he decided to use his grandmother's iron as a prototype to make and sell French cookie irons out of the old Inter-Urban Lumberyard founded by his father in Arma.

Indeed, the rest of the irons on the wall were cast with the words "Belgi Galette Iron, Belgi Mfg. Co., Arma, Kans." -- some in script, some in standard block letters. Some had the numbers 1, 2 or 3 cast on the face. Some the letters MP.

"We had three sizes. The No. 1 made a thin crisp cookie. The No. 2 (our biggest seller) a little thicker one. And the No. 3," he showed me as he opened the plates and displayed the grid of large raised protrusions, "was almost like a waffle."

Most all of the irons except his grandmother's were rescued from auctions and flea markets over the years. Irons that had no doubt been used countless times to make cookies for southeast Kansas holiday gatherings. Irons with the touch of mothers and grandmothers deep in their handles and grids.

The man responsible for copying the original was Karl Wicker, a pattern maker from Arma who learned his trade in Chicago but settled in southeast Kansas after he married one of the Dalton girls he met while visiting family down here.

"Lot's of people who'd moved to Detroit or Chicago from this area would buy them when they came back," Karl said when I phoned him. "I believe McNally's in Pittsburg (which explains the letters MP on some of the irons) was the first to cast them. Later they were cast by other foundries."

One thing's for sure. They were popular. A little too popular, it seems, for some of the McNally Pittsburg foundry workers to resist.

"I think maybe the reason McNally's stopped casting them after a while," said Casaletto with a chuckle, "was that the castings were disappearing before they could get them to us. The men were carrying them out of the foundry in their lunch boxes."

After the plates were cast, master welder Primo Guerrieri, owner of Primo's Welding in Arma, fashioned the handles and assembled the final product. I called and had a talk with Primo and his wife Marguerite (in classic married couple stereo, complete with contradictions). Primo, who at 86 is still vigorous, is something of a local legend. Since 1939, he has designed and repaired iron and steel devices in Arma with eye of an artist and the skill of a master craftsman. (Fittingly, Primo means No. 1 in Italian.) The day I called, Marguerite informed me proudly that he was working on a merry-go-round for Toby's Amusement.

"Yep. I put on the handles and hinges," Primo said of the galettes. "I made a jig for the hinges and a rolling contraption to put the round end on the 5/16-inch steel rods that became the handles. Made it go really fast." Primo sold his creation to Casaletto who, after a couple of years, hired out other workers to use Primo's jig and "contraption" to assemble the irons.

"We advertised a little too," Casaletto said, "and shipped them all over the country." Which might explain why, a couple of weeks ago, Bill Sollner of Arma received an e-mail from a woman in New Jersey named Linda Mueller. She'd recently acquired a "Belgi Galette Iron" for her collection as the high bidder on e-Bay, the Internet auction service. Intrigued by the name and location cast on the iron's front plate, he did an Internet search for Arma, Kansas, and discovered Sollner.

Turns out her story was similar to Casaletto's, as her great-grandmother brought a galette over from France around 1900. And that's not the only similarity. "Your community sounds very interesting," Mueller wrote to Sollner. "The small town I grew up in Illinois was settled due to farming and coal mining too."

I mused aloud to Casaletto that those cast iron and steel cookie irons must have represented something pretty important to those immigrant women to pack their weight all the way over here from France and Belgium.

"Yeah," he said after a reflective pause, the pride in his voice hanging in the air like the sweet smell of a French cookie hot off a cast iron galette. "I remember that they were very important to them. They represented tradition ... family."

Article by J.T. Knoll - Morning Sun (December 4, 2000)