Michael Copperthite has butter, sugar and flour in his blood.
His great-great-grandfather was Henry Copperthite, the so-called “Pie King” of Georgetown and founder of the Connecticut-Copperthite Pie Co. Michael loves nothing more than to wax poetic about his family, a line of piemakers dating to the Civil War era.
Preceding the likes of Baked and Wired and Pie Sisters by more than a century, the Connecticut-Copperthite Pie Co. was a bricks-and-mortar enterprise based in Georgetown that churned out 50,000 pies each day.
This year, the Falls Church political consultant wants to resurrect Henry’s business in the form of a modernized CoCo Pie Co. — and with it, a little-known part of Georgetown and American history.
The story of the Copperthite pies can be traced to Antigua, where Henry Copperthite was born in 1847 to indentured servants who landed in the West Indies after the religious wars in Scotland.
Henry’s family eventually won freedom and moved to Connecticut. In 1861, at the age of 14, he enlisted to fight on the side of the North in the Civil War. He joined the 79th Highlanders of New York as a wagon driver; during that time, he traveled to the Washington area, where his regiment was stationed at Georgetown College.
He returned to Connecticut after the war and put his wagon-driving skills to use working for a piemaker. Not satisfied with just making deliveries, he spent the next 20 years learning the baking business.
According to Copperthite family lore, Henry and his wife moved to Georgetown in 1885 and, on Thanksgiving eve, began their new business with nothing more than a horse, a wagon and $3.50 between them.
By 1900, Henry Copperthite was a millionaire.
The Copperthites were making more than 50,000 pies each day and had factories in Capitol Hill, M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. With 15,000 employees, the Connecticut-Copperthite Pie Co. was one of the Washington area’s largest employers, providing pies to members of Congress and the Armed Forces.
“At that time, there were really only two desserts: ice cream and pie,” Copperthite says, squinting against the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows of the Guards restaurant in Georgetown. Copperthite describes himself as an “Energizer bunny,” and his slim build and excitable nature make him seem younger than his 56 years.
“Mass-produced candy was in its infancy and ice cream was inconvenient; it would melt. Henry gave housewives in D.C. an alternative to baking pies at home.”
In addition to making pies, Henry built more than a dozen homes in Georgetown and Northern Virginia, was a founding board member of the Potomac Savings Bank at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW, was active in St. John’s Church on O Street NW, served on Georgetown’s Planning Board and contributed to charitable organizations including animal-rights groups and protective services for children in the workplace.
Henry Copperthite died in 1925, “of exhaustion, not old age,” Michael says, and in 1959 the pie company was bought out by Ward Baking Co., now Hostess Brands.
As the family business disbanded, so did the family legacy. Only a few rituals survived to be passed on through the generations, such as the tradition of delivering pies on the day before Thanksgiving to relatives and friends, commemorating Henry’s first day of business in Georgetown.
Michael Copperthite tumbled down that rabbit hole of history a couple of years ago when he began researching family folklore.
He dug around for Copperthite-related history at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. He took his wife and young daughter on vacations to ancestral hometowns in Scotland and Antigua, looking for clues into his family’s past.
“All roads [in D.C. history] lead back to pie,” Copperthite says.
He can bake pies, though he prefers to leave that to the experts. Mostly, he likes to eat pies of all kinds, especially blackberry but “not rhubarb,” he says emphatically. So where did he get the itch to open up shop in a city that boasts not just a wide selection of cupcakeries and pie shops, but also a roving pie truck?
“The more I learned about my family history, the more I asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing pies anymore?’ That is our legacy,” Copperthite says. “Plus, our pies are really, really good. A cupcake is a cupcake. And a pie, done right, is always better than a cupcake.”
The secret to the Copperthite pies is really no secret at all: It’s fresh, real ingredients. That means fruit and dairy sourced from local farms, and no artificial ingredients, he says.
“You know why [store-bought] pies went out of fashion? High-fructose corn syrup,” he says. “Pies today can be good, I guess. But they just don’t taste the same.”
On Jan. 29, Copperthite showcased his family recipes at an event hosted by the Burke Historical Society in Northern Virginia. Dozens of history buffs and Copperthite’s relatives and friends turned out; it had to be split into two sessions to accommodate the crowd.
Attendees listened to Copperthite tell his family’s story as they cooed over samples of pie. He plans to use his great-great-grandfather’s original recipes; however, instead of offering a whopping 29 flavors as Henry did, he will kick the business off with a half-dozen.
“I’m not going to be making 50,000 pies a day,” he says. “I’m aiming to sell 5,000 in a week.” He says he will donate 80 percent of the profits to local historic preservation societies and other charitable organizations — along the lines of the Paul Newman business model, says Copperthite. He doesn’t expect to quit his day job.
The pies, which will feature the original pie company’s star-and-crescent emblem on their top crust, will be available at as-yet-to-be-determined area farmers markets this summer. He says he hopes to open a storefront in Georgetown in the fall. Additionally, Copperthite wants to set up “pop-up shops” of sorts at Metrorail stations in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
He admits this venture won’t make him a fortune, but that’s not the point.
“Some of my relatives, mostly the kids, ask me, ‘Where’s all of Henry’s money?’ I tell them, ‘You’re the money. You’re the legacy.’ I want to honor my family’s history. How do I do that? By doing service for the community. And making great pies.”