If anyone is trekking through the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee between now and the end of January, please stop by the ETSU campus and see this exhibit that has been created by one of my students.
ETSU Student Honors Bristol Candy Makers in Reece Museum Exhibit
JOHNSON CITY—As a part of Bristol’s sesquicentennial celebration, East Tennessee State University’s B. Carroll Reece Museum will host an exhibit that traces the history of candy-making on both sides of State Street.
“Sweetness on the State Line: A Chronicle of Candy-Making in Bristol” will run from October 9, 2006, through January 31, 2007. An outgrowth of a class project in the university’s “Foodways of Appalachia” course, the exhibit has been developed by Lisa Elliott of Kingsport, a student in the master of arts in liberal studies program and the academic advisor on the ETSU at Kingsport campus.
“Making candy commercially in Bristol dates back to 1909,” Elliott said. “Although businesses have become increasingly mechanized over the years, much of the candy produced by companies like Helms, on Lee Highway, is still done by hand. It’s hard labor, as sugar and water are cooked in copper kettles over open fires of 300 degrees.”
The exhibit tells the story of candy maker Frank Loudy, 95, who started in business undaunted by the fact that sugar was being rationed. Photographs, artifacts, and antique equipment trace the rise of Helms Candy Company, which has become the world’s largest producer of medicated lollipops while preserving the decades-old art of making pure sugar stick candy. Many mountain people still declare the healing properties of a box of horehound candy to stave off wintertime colds.
“Bristol became an epicenter of candy production, turning out an amazing array of varieties and flavors,” says Elliott. “At one point, the twin cities of Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, were home to eight different candy companies. And, in many ways, the candy and pharmaceutical industries grew hand-in-hand there.”
Ken Ratliff, owner of Ratliff Candy Company on Bristol’s Tennessee side, theorizes that the city’s altitude is the reason it has attracted candy makers over the years.
“It’s unheard of to have so many confectioners in one locale,” Ratliff says. “The altitude here is just perfect, allowing us to produce a candy that doesn’t get sticky.”
Since 1956, Ratliff’s company, which he inherited from his parents, Lewis and Hattie Ratliff, has specialized in the making of peppermint candy cane baskets. It’s a two-person enterprise, run by Ken and his son Michael. Sixteen of their baskets adorned The White House during the Christmas season of 1977.
Despite its worldwide reach, Helms employs less than 40 people today. Some of them are second-generation candy makers. They work alongside chemists, packers, and the entire Helms family, heirs to the business started by G. Franks Helms Sr., who ran a grocery store on State Street at the turn of the 20th century.
According to the Helms Candy Company website, “As a sideline, and for a confectionery product for his grocery store, he started out by trying to make any type of candy that his customers would ask for. He made everything from chocolates to stick candy.
“Stick candy at that time was considered to be the ‘working man’s candy.’ Chocolate did not become available to the working class until Milton Hershey’s chocolate bars were developed and marketed for all sizes of incomes. Frank soon realized that he could manufacture the stick candy on a cost-effective basis and his customers liked it the best. He delivered his candy and groceries himself in horse-drawn buggies handed down from his father’s general store in Abingdon, Virginia.”
Says Richard Gibian, a Helms employee whose family has been making candy for a century, “You don’t walk in off the street and make this kind of candy. It’s almost a lost art that requires practice and patience.”
The public is invited to attend the opening reception for the exhibit on Thursday, October 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the museum. For information, call the Reece Museum at 423-439-4392.