Jim Felger's classmates would tease him because he smelled like deep-fried doughnuts when he came to school.
"Jim's father was a third-generation baker," said his wife, Lois Felger. "He learned by working next to his parents."
As a teen, Felger rolled dough and baked cookies at Stacy's Pastry Shop in Sandstone, Minn., which was named for his mother. Years later, the self-taught master baker owned Jeffrey's Patisserie & Candies, just off the exit to Hinckley, Minn., on Interstate 35.
For four decades, Felger was renowned in Pine County for his mouthwatering European breads and pastries, as well as the candies concocted from old family recipes — and his own.
"It was nothing for Jim to bake 3,200 hand-cut cookies a day," said Linda Grohoski, a friend and owner of Marianne's Kitchen in Shoreview. "He used quality ingredients in everything, and you could taste it." Around the holidays, his fruitcake, packed with cherries and pecans, was unrivaled.
Felger died on June 11 at age 73 in his Hinckley home. "His last night, he pulled out sugar and butter at his baking bench where he had spent hundreds of hours," said Lois Felger.
Jim Felger was born in St. Paul. When he was 5, his parents, Theodore and Stacy Felger, moved the family to Willow River, then to Sandstone, where they opened Stacy's Pastry in 1954. Felger graduated from Sandstone High School in 1960. When his father died in 1964, he took over the bakery business with his mother.
After he married Lois Osterhus, the couple decided to branch out on their own. In 1988, the Felgers debuted their bakery, Jeffrey's, named after their young son, inside a big Colonial-style home. "We lived above the bakery so we could spend time with the kids," Lois Felger said. Jim Felger wanted to be "where the action was," which was across from Tobies, the landmark restaurant and bakery at the Hinckley exit. The Felgers were confident that there was enough business from families driving Up North to support both bakeries.
Before long, loyal customers loaded up on Czech houska bread, kolaches and frosted ginger molasses cookies. The prolific baker also mixed up batches of almond bark and peanut brittle, chatting with customers as he worked. The mom-and-pop bakery thrived, and "so many people depended on Jim for something special. Lola Perpich was a regular customer for Jim's fruitcake," Lois Felger said, referring to the former Minnesota first lady.
When the "Twin Cities Live" TV show aired a segment on the Felger family's fruitcake recipe, "the orders poured in, and Jim had to make 5,400 pounds of fruitcake over the next two weeks," said Grohoski. Jeffrey's was even named one of the best hometown bakeries in the Midwest in a 1999 issue of Midwest Living magazine. "When they interviewed him, Jim was still enthusiastic about baking, even though he'd been doing it since he was 10 years old," his wife said.
In 2002, after 14 years in business, Lois and Jim closed Jeffrey's. "We were in our 60s and felt it was time to not work seven days a week," she said. Still, Felger discovered he couldn't stop baking, so he did a stint at Tobies for several years, until he was sidelined by health issues. Later, he launched "Jim's Specialties," selling apple fritter bread and almond coffee cake at holiday fairs in Pine County.
Some of Felger's recipes — including those for orange houska, cardamom bread and Stacy's fruitcake — are still baked daily at Tobies.
"I see Jim's passing as the end of an old tradition," said Grohoski. "And he was also an incredibly nice guy."
A memorial service is scheduled for July 30 at the Senior Center in Sandstone.