Since 2000, Mary Buckingham has guarded the mysterious sourdough starter. She’s one of many volunteers acting as a gatekeeper of a special mailbox where any baker worldwide can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope. In return, they can receive a free sourdough starter that reportedly traces back to the historic Oregon Trail.
Buckingham relocated to Greeley, Colorado, in mid-2022, taking the mailbox with her. Every winter she typically receives between 30 and 150 weekly requests, according to The Denver Post. After a video about the 177-year-old sourdough starter went viral on TikTok in January, Buckingham told the outlet that she had “an unbelievable flood” of mail.
“This week, we have well over 1,000 requests coming in,” Buckingham revealed. “It’s insane.”
Ordinarily, she collects the mail and makes sure that each envelope is adequately filled out and stamped before sending the envelopes to a “grower” in the Pacific Northwest who maintains the starter. This person typically spreads the starter onto wax paper, dries it out, and then divides it into smaller pieces to grind them up into a grainy mixture that can be mailed.
Buckingham noted that the starter is popular amongst bread enthusiasts for a reason. “It’s strong, it’s stable,” she said. “It raises bread very nicely, and it’s everything you want in a starter.”
The highly-coveted sourdough starter was first distributed by the late Carl Griffith, an Oregon native who reportedly inherited the artifact after his parents died. In a brochure Griffith wrote in 1996, he alleged that his ancestors brought the starter with them while traveling west from Missouri along the Oregon Trail in 1847, and ever since, the living heirloom has been passed down from generation to generation.
Born in 1919, Griffith wrote that he first learned how to use sourdough starter when he was but 10 years old. When he was older, Griffith developed a cult following for sharing his dried starter with anyone who sent him a self-addressed and stamped envelope, gaining underground notoriety in the early internet forums of the 1990s. It was through the internet that the starter’s reputation grew but also led to the emergence of a virtual community of breadmakers.
After Griffith died in 2000, members of the online forum created The 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Preservation Society in his honour, keeping both his legacy and sourdough starter alive. At the time, however, Griffith’s remaining family wasn’t interested in continuing the project. Members of the society worked with his ex-wife to manage requests for a while until they began to expand into a nationwide network of people known as “Carl’s friends,” who continue to maintain and share his starter.
As of 2023, Buckingham said that nearly 65,000 bags of the ancient starter have been sent to bakers all across the world, with the most common international requests coming from locales including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany. She noted that the only countries she hasn’t mailed dried starter to have been China and Russia. “I even got a request from Ukraine in 2022 right before the attack (by Russian troops), some person in Kyiv,” Buckingham added.