The Chicago area has long been the candy Mecca of the United States, a fact currently being celebrated by an exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum called ‘Sweet Home Chicago.” Aside from the nostalgia of seeing vintage packaging and salivating over long-gone treats, itfs a great place to watch Lucy and Ethel try to keep up with the candy conveyor.

The traveling exhibit was the brainchild of curator Lance Tawzer. Like the museumfs exhibit last year on toys and games manufactured in the Windy City, seeing a red movie theater vending machine holding a box of Mason Dots, whisks visitors back to their childhood. The exhibit is subtitled, ‘The History of Americafs Candy Capital.”

‘Chicago had over a hundred candy companies, employing 25,000 workers,” Tauzer explained. ‘Production peaked in 1963 when Chicagofs output doubled New Yorkfs. Chicago became the candy center because it was a transportation hub and home to immigrants with Old World recipes. It used to produce a third of the nationfs candy and is still the candy capital.”

Besides giving the overall picture of local candy-making, the exhibit has panels highlighting the biggest manufacturers, like Forest Parkfs Ferrara Pan.

‘Tootsie Roll was a family-owned business,” noted Tauzer. ‘Melvin and Ellen Gordon started the company in Hoboken, N.J. in 1896. After they outgrew their plant, they took over a 2.3-million-square-foot factory on the South Side of Chicago, where they used to make Tucker automobiles and B29s.

‘The Mars factory used to be a golf course,” he added. ‘They kept the clubhouse for its offices.”

The Mars family had a horse named Snickers for whom they named a very popular candy bar in 1930. ‘The Curtiss Candy Co. had a farm in Cary for their dairy products,” Tauzer said. ‘Marshall Fieldfs manufactured Frango mints on the 13th floor of the store.”

Henry Blommer opened his chocolate company in 1939. It remains one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the U.S. The Baby Ruth bar was named for President Grover Clevelandfs daughter. The Sultan of Swat didnft get a dime in royalties and was sued by the candy company when he came out with his ‘Homer” Bar.

The Milky Way was named for its milky ingredients. Mars Candy Co. is still one of the largest privately-owned companies in the world. William Wrigley used to include a stick of gum with his baking powder, before mass-producing Spearmint, Doublemint and Juicy Fruit. In 1912, Cracker Jack coated popcorn with molasses and added a prize. Oh Henry! was named after a salesman who flirted with female clerks at the company. Fannie May, alas, was a made-up name.

‘Candyland USA,” a 15-minute documentary on the history of Chicago candy-making narrated by Bill Kurtis, is also shown at the exhibit. In his ‘Voice of God” inflections, Kurtis talks about how Hershey first saw candy being manufactured at the 1893 Worldfs Fair. Eleven years later, Emil Brach erected his massive factory on Cicero Avenue (now sadly sitting empty). The plant had 17 acres of floor space, with 4,000 workers making 300 varieties of candy.

The documentary also describes the decline of Chicagofs candy industry. Geographic location lost its importance while federal subsidies drove up the price of sugar. Many candy companies had to leave the U.S. to remain competitive. Still, the National Confection Association remains headquartered in Chicago and the Sweets and Snacks Expo has been coming here since 1997.

Brach, no manufactured longer in Chicago, was purchased by Farleyfs and Sathers in 2007, the company that just merged with Ferrara Pan last month. It seems that when candy companies change hands, plants seem to close. The day after the merger went through, Farleyfs announced it would close its Round Lake, Minn. facilities.

The Elmhurst Historical Museum is located at 120 E. Park Ave. (630-833-1457 or visit The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 1-5 p.m. Admission is free. You can travel back to your sweet past until Sept. 30.

From Little Italy to Forest Park

‘Sweet Home Chicago” features a prominent display on Ferrara Pan Candy Co. The Forest Park-based candy giant has been in the news, thanks to its recent merger with Farleyfs and Sathers. There are fears it may relocate its local manufacturing to Canada or Mexico to take advantage of lower sugar prices. CEO Sal Ferrara II has not issued a statement on the future of the company.

The current chairman is the third generation of the Ferrara family to head the confection business. His grandfather, Salvatore Ferrara, came from Nola, Italy to New York in 1899 at the age of 15. Ferrara had to work off his passage, which had been advanced by a sponsor. He taught himself English and acted as interpreter between Italian laborers and their railroad foremen in Texas.

He returned to Chicago in 1908 to open a bakery at 772 W. Taylor, in the heart of Chicagofs ‘Little Italy” neighborhood. (The Ferrara family had been bakers in the old country.) As a sideline, he sold candy-coated almonds known as ‘confetti,” a popular treat at Italian weddings. When candy surpassed pastries in sales, Ferrara partnered with two brothers-in-law, Salvatore Buffardi and Anello Pagano. They built a two-story brick building at 2200 W. Taylor and began producing a variety of pan candies.

The second floor contained the rumbling revolving kettles that produced the pan candy. All the machines were driven by a giant wheel. There was a hole in the floor for the candy to drop down to the shipping department. Pan candy is produced by putting a hard center in the kettle and adding syrup, flavoring and coloring as the machine revolves. Itfs a slow, gradual process. It can take 14-19 days to make a batch of jawbreakers.

Salvatorefs wife, Serafina, continued to run the bakery in ‘Little Italy.” She became known as the ‘Angel of Halsted Street.”

Her son, Nello Ferrara, obtained his law degree and enlisted in World War II in 1942. He served as a military attorney and oversaw the war crimes trials in Japan in 1946. His visit to that devastated country inspired the creation of Atomic Fireballs in 1954. The hot cinnamon candy was a perfect fit for the Atomic Age. Theyfre still popular, with 15 million consumed weekly.

Inspiration for the Lemonhead came from watching his son Sal being delivered. He was a forceps baby and Salvatore complained that his newbornfs head was lemon-shaped. He introduced the mouth-puckering treat in 1962. Ferrara now makes 500 million Lemonheads a year.

Continuing this theme, the company added Melonheads, Appleheads and Grapeheads to their line, along with Jawbreakers, Boston Baked Beans and Red Hots. Demand for the candy caused the company to outgrow the space on Taylor Street and the machinery was moved to a former Borden dairy plant in Forest Park in 1959.

Sugar high

Corporate welfare is one of the causes of high sugar prices in the U.S., according to an article in the Washington Examiner, which contends these subsidies are driving candy companies out of the country. It also adds to the cost of candy and soda pop.

“The sugar program … kills U.S. jobs, distorts markets and enriches a few well-connected companies,” reporter Timothy P. Carney charges.

The USDA extends loans to producers, which keeps the price of sugar artificially high by restricting imports, costing consumers nearly $2 billion a year.

Another factor causing companies to relocate is the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Candy companies that have fled to Mexico and Canada can remain competitive by using Cuban sugar.

There don’t appear to be any prospects for lifting the Cuban embargo, and a change in sugar policy also doesn’t seem likely, as the U.S. Senate recently voted to preserve the USDA program.


John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.