'A Little Ukrainian Soul' Brings New Life To Historic Barre Bakery
A Barre bakery that was once at the center of a strong labor movement in the early 1900s is back in business.
The bakery, now owned by the Barre Historical Society, turned out its first loaf of hand-baked bread in 1913. It served generations of immigrant quarry workers and stone carvers who toiled in the city’s granite industry.
The massive brick oven was rebuilt recently as part of a project that included the renovation of Barre’s Old Labor Hall. The challenge then was to find a skilled baker who wanted to lease it and give the place a new life. The search ended with a Vermonter living in Ukraine.
On a recent morning, Jim Haas worked with practiced motions. He pivoted quickly, like a basketball player lining up a shot as he slid his peel, a long handled paddle, in and out of the massive wood-fired oven.
He eased two large, round loaves of dark bread onto a table and rapped them with his knuckles. They’re done, Haas said, when a hard rap makes the bread resonate like a block of wood.
“Yep, that one's ready,” he said. “I just love these breads, I gotta tell you.”
The thick loaves are a classic sourdough rye bread of northern Germany and eastern Europe, made here at the Rise Up Bakery from simple ingredients: whole grain, organic rye flour, sea salt and water.
Haas explained that making these breads is a three-day process of getting the sourdough built and fermented, letting it cool and slow down overnight, then forming the loaves, letting them rise again and then finally baking them.
“So many people are so fascinated by this," Haas said. "But I say, ‘Fellas, we are not reinventing the wheel here.' We’re doing essentially the same that's been done for 6,000 years. So a lot of people find that appealing, I'm happy about that.”
Haas is from Danby. His journey from Rutland County to Ukraine and back to Vermont started with what he figured would be a brief adventure overseas.
Haas had learned Russian in college and was living in Ukraine in the early 1990s, working at a trading company. He met his wife Larissa there. They both wanted to work in the fledgling Ukrainian organic food sector, and they had first planned to mill whole grain flour. But Haas said they found people didn’t really know how to work with it. So he taught himself some bread-making basics and started a wood-fired bakery as a demonstration project.
“And we had a big German wood-fired oven there," he said. "I took to it, and really liked it, feeling that I was really producing a nutritious product for people."
But first, he and Larissa found they had to re-establish the taste for these traditional, handmade breads in a society where food production had become industrialized.
“You know, back in Ukraine, there was long period where people thought that was just old bread," Haas said. "They’d say, ‘Are you selling this? It’s hard as a rock.’ And we said, ‘Well, you got to cut it open.’ My wife and I went through a long period of kind of educating people about this.”
But the business took off, and soon Haas was working 18-hour days. He baked bread in a village outside the capital, then delivered it to customers in Kyiv.
Along the way, he witnessed two decades of social upheaval in his adopted country, including months-long demonstrations against Russia-backed leaders. The protests are known by the name of the central square in Kyiv, called the Maidan.
“I planned to go there for a year, and one year turned into 28,” Haas said. “We saw the first Maidan in 2004, and we saw the second Maidan, which was very severe and very violent, in ’13 and ’14. At the same time, we managed to launch Ukraine’s first commercial wood-fired bakery.”
Over the years in Ukraine, he and Larissa also raised three sons, now all grown. But in the last few years there, Haas said he wanted a new challenge and he wanted to return to the U.S. in part to be closer to his family. He made one trip to the upper Midwest scouting possibilities for a wood-fired bakery business, but that didn't pan out.
Back in Barre, Carolyn Shapiro, a board member of the historical society, had led the effort to restore the bakery, raising funds for the venture, landing grants and wrangling contractors. But the society also had to find a baker who both wanted to lease the facility and serve the society's educational mission with community workshops and mentorships.
“So we knew we wanted both of those to happen,” Shapiro said. “And Jim and Larissa had that experience of setting up a bakery and has also trained bakers. So there was an aspect of education that they also were familiar with.
"Finding Jim and Larissa was incredible," she added. "It was like a gift.”
Some serious serendipity also played a part. The Barre Historical Society had enlisted Vermont bakers in their search. The Vermonters put a notice on a bakery guild newsletter that Haas – who by then was looking for an opportunity to move back to the U.S – monitored in Kyiv.
“Those letters from the listserv of bakers’ guild were coming out in such numbers, after a while, I just started deleting them,” he said. “I said, ‘I just don’t have any chance to read these.’ But that one I just kind of paused with and scrolled, and then 'Vermont' just kind of jumped out at me, like highbeams of a car… So yeah, here we are, standing here, next to this nice hot oven.”
And the community is responding. During the interview with VPR, Haas received an order for 14 dozen Italian dinner rolls from the Mutuo Society, a Barre organization founded in 1906 as a mutual aid society for Italian immigrants. Now, it’s known mainly for its excellent dinners.
Haas said he was a little worried that his rolls wouldn’t hold up the standards established by Batista Fumagalli, the baker who first worked at this place.
“So the first couple of deliveries over there, I was a little intimidated by it,” he said. “And then, the word got back, some of the old timers there that remember his rolls, [they] said, 'These are just as good.' So we call them Fumagalli Italian rolls.”
Larissa, Haas’ partner, pointed out that the breads made here are international in another way too. The starter for the sourdoughs came from Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains.
“Jim went to the mountains, took the spring water, and the flour, mixed it up, and started this sour right on the very top of the mountain,” she said. “So we brought it with us here, and we bake with it. So it has a little Ukrainian soul in every loaf.”
President Trump’s involvement with Ukraine is at the center of a constitutional showdown with Congress. But both Larissa and Jim Haas said American politics matters little to ordinary Ukrainians. Their primary worry is ending the war with Russia that has claimed 13,000 thousand lives.
Jim Haas said he lost track of the funeral processions he witnessed in his village.
“You know, the cars moving slowly, and there would be a carriage with a coffin and helmet on the top and a picture of a young man’s face,” he said. “These are the people that are fighting that war to this very day.”
Here in Vermont, the Haas' focus is the new bakery and expanding their circle of customers. The couple plans to give back to the community with bread-making workshops and a mentor program for young people who want to learn the baking trade. In the meantime, they sell bread at a local grocery, the Montpelier farmer's market, and at the bakery’s storefront window.
Larissa says she loves seeing the social connections that people make as they place their orders.
“And they’re talking, even after they bought the bread, they communicate with each other, 'Oh, say hi to your mother.' And this is great, they start arguing, they're talking about things, the economics, the politics, this and that. It’s a little beehive — turned out to be. It’s fun.”