In 2000, Mary Buckingham volunteered to be the keeper of a special mailbox where breadmakers anywhere in the world could send a self-addressed stamped envelope and receive in return a free sourdough starter with a claimed lineage to the historic Oregon Trail.

When Buckingham relocated to Greeley, Colorado, in mid-2022, so too did the mailbox and its regular cadence of envelopes from hopeful bakers. In a typical winter, Buckingham fields between 30 and 150 weekly requests.

But in January, a video about the starter and its ties to the Oregon Trail went viral on TikTok, causing “an unbelievable flood” of mail, Buckingham said recently while parsing through envelopes. “This week, we have well over 1,000 requests coming in. It’s insane.” 

It’s easy to see the allure of baking with such an illustrious artifact. The sourdough starter belonged to the late Carl Griffith, a native Oregonian who inherited the living heirloom when his parents died. The starter had been his family for many generations prior, reportedly traveling west with his ancestors from Missouri along the Oregon Trail in 1847, according to a brochure Griffith penned in 1996.

The Oregon Trail was a more than 2,000-mile wagon route that pioneers used to traverse the country west to the Oregon Territory, which included present-day Oregon and Washington. Griffith, who was born in 1919, first learned to use the sourdough starter at age 10 while setting up a homestead in southeastern Oregon. Because he was cooking over a campfire, Griffith baked bread in a Dutch oven that he buried in the firepit, he wrote.

In later years, Griffith was known for sharing his dried starter with anyone who sent him a self-addressed and stamped envelope. It caught traction in the early internet forums of the 1990s, where the starter not only earned a reputation for its vitality but also built a virtual community of like-minded bakers who exchanged tricks of the trade.

“It’s strong, it’s stable. It raises bread very nicely, and it’s everything you want in a starter,” said Buckingham, who was part of the original foodie-focused group on Usenet.

When Griffith died in 2000, members of the forum set up The 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Preservation Society to keep both his legacy and sourdough starter alive. According to Buckingham, Griffith’s remaining family wasn’t interested in maintaining the starter or the project. For a time, the preservation society worked with his ex-wife to manage requests, she added.

As of 2023, the society had mailed nearly 65,000 baggies of dried starter to bakers across the globe. The most common international destinations include Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany, Buckingham said, but she’s hard-pressed to recall countries besides China and Russia she hasn’t mailed to.

“I even got a request from Ukraine in 2022 right before the attack (by Russian troops), some person in Kyiv,” Buckingham said.

Buckingham is just one volunteer in a nationwide network of people known as “Carl’s friends” who continue to share his starter. She collects the mail and ensures each envelope is adequately filled out and stamped. Buckingham then mails the envelopes to a “grower” in the Pacific Northwest who keeps a healthy, active starter. That person spreads the starter onto wax paper, dries it out and then breaks it into pieces and grinds them up into a grainy mixture to mail prospective bakers.

The whole process takes about a week, Buckingham said. And because there are so many requests right now, she’s expediting envelopes that include a donation. Once bakers receive the dried starter, they can follow instructions on to revive it.

Though the preservation society exists solely to fulfill requests for Griffith’s starter, Buckingham said it hasn’t ever promoted its cause. The starter’s legend travels primarily by word of mouth, both in-person and online.

One reason Buckingham thinks it’s become so popular is because making a sourdough starter from scratch is a “crapshoot.” Sourdough is a naturally fermented type of bread, so it relies on having robust wild yeast in the atmosphere and on the grains to kick-start fermentation. Many commercial flours and wheat have also been industrialized to the point where they maintain little or no natural yeast, Buckingham said, adding some might include pesticides.

There’s also the risk a starter could mold in the fermentation process, so if you can procure an already established starter, you can start making bread almost immediately.

But that’s when the baker’s work is just beginning, Buckingham noted. “You have to understand this is a pet. It’s a live thing and it does need care and feeding. It’s not like commercial yeast. It’s a different creature.”

One of her most memorable experiences was getting a wave of envelopes from Amish bakers after a community magazine featured the starter. Their requests always asked for printed instructions, she said, since most Amish culture doesn’t allow for technology like the internet.

Buckingham recalls seeing an uptick in the number of requests filling her mailbox after The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune gave passing shout-outs to the starter in news articles, as well as at the beginning of the pandemic when raising sourdough became a popular hobby for house-bound Americans.

Still, she’s never seen anything like the influx of enthusiasm as of late. Her volunteer gig of more than two decades has turned into a full-time job with few signs of slowing down.

Several TikTok personalities said they’ve never jumped so quickly to leverage snail mail as they did after hearing about the historic starter – turning the simple act of mailing their envelopes into content on the social media platform. Buckingham considers sourdough an “extremely old technology” and the irony of it thriving in the digital age isn’t lost on her.

“We’re a creature of the internet,” she said.

The flood of requests has been so overwhelming that some members of the preservation society have floated the idea of charging for the starter. However, Buckingham contends doing so would conflict with the spirit of the project.

“It was about continuing the old pioneer tradition of giving whoever wanted it sourdough because it’s food. Especially back in the day, bread was everything,” she said.

Seasoned and novice bakers alike can get a bag of Griffith’s famed 1847 starter by following the directions on As noted, The 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Preservation Society is fielding an unprecedented number of requests, so receiving the starter may take several weeks.

Buckingham emphasized sending the right size envelope – a No. 10, also known as a business-size envelope – that is both self-addressed and includes a stamp. Not following the directions explicitly may lead to further delays. Lastly, the preservation society is run entirely by volunteers, so you’re asked to consider including a donation in your envelope, which will help cover the costs associated with making the starter available for free.

Unsure what to make? The website includes a brochure with recipes to create loaves, biscuits, and hotcakes, and Buckingham said it makes great pancakes, muffins and more.

“You can even make a cake with it,” she said.

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.