The Yuille Family & the Mobile Steam Bakery

Started by Gavin Yuille, and maintained by two subsequent generations, Yuille’s Mobile Steam Bakery survived for nearly a century. 

R.L. Yuille, left, in front of his Mobile Steam Bakery in 1881. Photo courtesy of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society.

In downtown Mobile once stood a small bakery begun by an industrious Scotsman named Gavin Yuille. Maintained by two subsequent generations of his descendants, Yuille’s Mobile Steam Bakery survived for nearly a century, from the antebellum era to the modern age. 

Gavin Yuille was born in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, in September 1786. His large family immigrated to the New World in 1829, settling first in North Carolina. Yuille was a baker of some repute in Edinburgh in his earlier years, although it took some time for him to return to the profession upon coming to America.

The prospect of resurrecting his old trade may have propelled his relocation to Alabama’s port city. Yuille secured a loan from the Mobile branch of the Bank of Alabama for $1,512.50 and purchased a bakery at the corner of Dauphin and Jackson Streets from an aged French baker named Alaire. Yuille named his concern the Mobile Steam Bakery, perhaps a nod to the emerging baking technique of adding steam to brick ovens to produce superior bread.

A newspaper ad for the Yuille bakery.

Yuille’s new enterprise catered to the needs of two diverse consumer groups. For the proverbial upper crust of society — those residents of Mobile living in well-appointed manors, their pockets full of cotton profits — the bakery offered a variety of cakes, rolls and long French bread baked twice daily.

At the same time, Yuille kept up a lively business supplying ships and steamboats with considerably tougher stuff designed for a longer shelf life, like pilot bread, a type of hardtack. Simply made from flour, water and salt, pounds of pilot bread could be packed in a barrel and stored in a ship’s hold for months, if needed. Gavin Yuille offered 20 pounds of the stuff, delivered to the dock “with correctness and dispatch,” for one dollar.

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Tragedy came in October 1839, when a fire swept through Mobile, burning nearly one-third of the wooden buildings. As the flames crept closer, the baker attempted to save his flour by rolling the barrels into the street. His efforts failed; Yuille lost everything. He soon relocated to rented quarters along Government Street, purchasing the building in 1848.

A surviving ledger of his expenses reveals the ordered days of the Scottish-born baker: payments for repairs to an oven, $25.50; a yearlong advertisement in the local paper, $8; payments for gas-powered lights, $16.30; $40 for firewood.

Interspersed among these ledger entries are payments Yuille made for the hiring of enslaved laborers, payments made not to the individuals themselves, but to the Mobilians who held them as property. The “hiring out” of enslaved laborers was a common practice in southern cities. On average, Yuille paid $15 a month for the hire of an enslaved person, roughly .50 a day. At the same time, records indicate his white employees were paid about $2 for their average daily wage.

Yuille purchased a number of enslaved laborers outright as well, including a young man named Sam. In 1843, after several years of making monthly payments for Sam’s labor, Yuille paid his owner a final $640.

In his waning years Yuille began relying increasingly upon his two sons, Robert Lang and John C., to handle the operations of the bakery. From his Baldwin County estate, Gavin Yuille offered guidance on personnel and the collection of debts. He died on September 17, 1849, shortly before his 63rd birthday. The brothers Yuille made several enhancements to the business, including the purchase of a wheel-powered cracker cutting device. They also continued the practice of employing enslaved laborers. In 1853, they paid $1,100 for an enslaved man named Adam. The receipt noted that he was a “baker by trade.”

The Union blockade of Mobile during the Civil War brought with it rising costs and supply shortages. The price of flour, any baker’s most essential ingredient, became prohibitively high. In 1844, Gavin Yuille paid as little as $30 a barrel for fine, white flour. By 1863, his sons might be expected to pay nearly $400 for a barrel filled with a product of lesser quality, if they could find any at all.

A depiction of the Mobile Bread Riot of 1863.

The economic despair of blockaded Mobilians brought about a riot in September 1863. Under banners reading “Bread or Peace,” dozens of hungry citizens armed with brickbats, brooms and axes swept through downtown Mobile, breaking storefront windows and taking whatever foodstuffs they could find. If there were any scant loafs left upon the racks and shelves of Yuille’s bakery on that hot September day, they were all likely taken as well.

At war’s end, Federal troops briefly commandeered the bakery and pressed its ovens into service for several months. Though the facility was no worse for the wear, the brief occupation galled the Yuilles, both of whom were supporters of the Confederacy. They attempted in vain for two decades to receive remuneration from the government.

As Robert and John grew older, they turned to the third generation to keep the business going. In 1892, Robert’s eldest son and namesake took his father’s place in the company. Born in 1863, Robert Lewis Yuille was a loyal son, but also a successful commercial merchant with interests beyond the business of bread. After his uncle John died in 1905, Robert Yuille brought on the bakery’s first external partner, a German immigrant named Louis Schettler, who labored against hard odds to keep the bakery solvent.

All too often, multigenerational family businesses merely fade into history, victims of divided attentions, probate squabbles or the cruel vagaries of bad luck. The end of Yuille’s Bakery comes with a touch of poetic symmetry, however.

In 1834, Scotsman Gavin Yuille purchased his Mobile bakery from a French immigrant. Nine decades later, a Greek immigrant named Jason Malbis purchased the Yuille bakery for an undisclosed sum.

A successful restauranteur, Malbis was in the midst of an expansion of his commercial interests. After one year of operations at the site of the old Mobile Steam Bakery, Malbis closed the location and moved the remaining equipment to his larger facility a few blocks westward. 

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appears in the July 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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