BANGOR — When Stephen King needed a cake for his “Firestarter” movie premier, when the Bangor Daily News turned 100 and when the University of Maine hockey team became national champions, Jan Campbell went to work to create scrumptious works of edible cake art to celebrate the special moments.
“I made my first wedding cake in 1957,” Campbell said Thursday while packing chocolate into boxes to ship to customers in Florida and Hawaii at her cake-decorating shop in downtown Bangor. “My mom was a good cook, and she taught me how to do it.”
The hobby she started when she was 18 years old quickly turned into a full-time career. On Oct. 27, 1978, she opened Cakes by Jan at 214 Hammond St., the former Holly Hose 7 historic fire station that opened in 1888 and operated with horse-drawn wagons.
She celebrated the opening of her store, which is packed from floor to ceiling nowadays with baking and candy-making items, by wearing a firefighter’s hat and baking a novelty cake that looked like a shiny red firetruck.
Historic news clippings of the fire station are framed and on display in her front window.
Campbell put the historic two-story brick building on the market last month.
“I want to go home and play. I have so many hobbies I don’t have time for, like woodworking,” she said.
“I love this building, and I’m not going anywhere until it’s sold,” she said later.
At its peak, Cakes By Jan had 24 employees, including Campbell’s son, Mike, who baked the cakes she decorated. There were days when they made 100 cakes together. The company also made baked items for local restaurants, such as cupcakes for the now closed Paul’s Restaurant by the Bangor Mall.
Campbell airbrushed a replica of Stephen King’s book cover for the “Firestarter” sponge cake she made in 1984, featuring a young Drew Barrymore with her blond hair flying and flames in the background.
The Bangor Daily News cake was 5 feet long, featuring a separate three-layer cake in the corner with a “100” on top and an edible folded newspaper with a headline thanking employees sat on top of the cake, along with an edible cup of coffee and a donut.
The life-sized UMaine hockey player on skates cake was made in 1993, when the Black Bears became the NCAA National Champions. It took three days to complete. When she delivered the cake — which was built on a metal frame — it wouldn’t fit into the van Campbell borrowed, so the skater’s head was removed, she recalled. The headless metal frame now resides in Campbell’s garden.
She’s made a 4-foot boat cake with railings, a frog wedding cake, Michael Jackson cakes, strawberry daiquiri cakes and a blossoming flower cake that was so big she needed to stand on her tiptoes to put the last cake petal in place. The “flower pot” was filled with several pounds of hand-grated chocolate, and the center of the flowers were filled with a quart of Maine blueberries.
“I have billions of pictures,” the lifelong baker said. “It was fun. It was a challenge. I tried to make each one different.”
Campbell said she doesn’t know how many cakes she has made over the years, but she has a 1988 calendar in which she recorded the wedding cakes she made that year.
“I made 328 wedding cakes that year,” she said.
The septuagenarian gave up making cakes years ago. But she still opens up the shop and turns on the ovens each Thursday throughout the year to make her famous “Paul’s Restaurant” cupcakes because she missed her customers.
“They come from all over,” Campbell said. “The ones who were just here came from down in the Bar Harbor area. A lot will come in and say, ‘You made my wedding cake,’ or, ‘You made my birthday cake.’”
Julie Edgecomb of Brewer, who was in the shop Thursday to buy orange chocolate, was the perfect example.
“She made my cake when I was, like, 6 years old,” Edgecomb said as she stood at the counter to pay. “It was a Wonder Woman cake.”
Every October, Campbell goes back to full time and opens Cakes By Jan from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, because “this is my busy season.” She will continue normal operating hours until the end of December, then she’ll go back to only being open Thursdays.
After making cakes for 57 years, Campbell said she can tell you operating her business was not about making money.
“I didn’t want the bloody money — I wanted the ‘Attagirl,’” Campbell said.