From 100-year-old stalwarts to modern upstarts, Virginia’s confectioners are feeding a nostalgic niche.
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George "Buzz" Helms holding Helms Candy King Pops.
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Millcroft Farms’ Shenandoah Valley Apple Candy.
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A selection of Nancy's Candy.
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Sue Charney, owner of Red Rocker Candy.
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Red Rocker candy.
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Peanut brittle in production at Old Dominion Peanut Co.
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Buzz Helms with brother Mark R. Helms and parents Helen and George R. Helms III.
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On the factory floor at Helms Candy.
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As childhoods go, it’s tough to beat the one George “Buzz” Helms IV enjoyed.
He was raised in Bristol, Virginia, where his great-grandfather founded Helms Candy in 1909. As a kid growing up in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Helms often rode the prestigious Santa Claus float in the city’s Christmas parade. When reporters visited his family’s candy factory, where seven furnaces blazed amid the scent of peppermint, he enjoyed getting his picture taken. Best of all, he could stop by the candy factory with his sister and brother every day after school.
“Back then we had 35 or 40 employees at any given time, and they were like family,” Helms recalls. “We ate all the candy we wanted.”
Helms, now 57, is vice president of sales and marketing for the candy company, the only place he’s ever worked. Though Helms Candy no longer runs three shifts a day and is down to two furnaces and 15 employees, the 50,000-square-foot facility still smells like peppermint, among other flavors, and each year it produces about 500,000 pounds of treats: fruit-flavored King Pops suckers; classic chocolate peppermint, key lime, and sassafras Red Band stick candies; banana, birch, and clove Virginia Beauty stick candies; and many more flavors, including what is perhaps the most unusual and old-fashioned—horehound, which some describe as tasting like a blend of mint, licorice and root beer.
Helms happened to grow up as the heyday of candy manufacturing in Virginia was ending. In the early 1900s, dozens of confectioners operated statewide—in Alexandria, Bristol, Lynchburg, Manassas, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond, Roanoke, Suffolk and Winchester, among other cities and towns.
At the start of 1915, for example, Richmond was home to several, including the Westmoreland Candy Co., best known for its 5-cent Peconut Crisp. A Westmoreland advertisement in the 1913 edition of The Southern Planter urged readers to try this “healthful” candy “in the dust proof packages.” Extolling the nutritional aspect of peanuts, the ad claimed Peconut Crisp “supplies the body fats that every healthful person needs.” It’s unclear when Westmoreland went out of business. Its four-story plant was ravaged by fire in early 1915, according to the 25-cent Confectioners Gazette published that May. But as late as 1921, the company earned praise for its Peconut Crisp display at the Made in Richmond Exposition. The Richmond Times-Dispatch called the candy exhibit “most attractive.”
Richmond wasn’t alone in having a vibrant candy industry in the early 1900s. By 1915, Roanoke boasted at least four candy makers, and the Planters Nut & Chocolate Co. in Suffolk had announced it would make a large addition to its factory in spring 1916. At one point, Helms recalls, a combined total of nine companies made candy on the Virginia and Tennessee sides of Bristol.
Candy makers came and went, however, and most didn’t last long. Competition was tough. Consumer tastes changed as chocolate gained mainstream popularity over traditional hard and stick candy. Timelines of candy production in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s highlight a gradual shift to candy bars fashioned from various combinations of chocolate, nuts and caramel. Nestle’s Baby Ruth, for instance, was released in 1920. Mars Inc. (family-owned since its inception in the Midwest in the early 1900s, and headquartered in McLean, though no manufacturing takes place in Virginia) came out with Milky Way in 1923, Snickers in 1930 and Junior Mints in 1949. Chocolate bars got a big boost after World War I, during which the U.S. Army had commissioned multiple chocolatiers to produce blocks of chocolate for shipment to military bases overseas. Chocolate makers eventually chopped those blocks up themselves and sold them to the public in bar form.
“I wouldn’t say making candy is a lost art, but it is an art,” Helms explains. “The biggest problem or challenge today is the small accounts and family businesses that we used to supply, they aren’t there anymore. The larger companies—the big box mentality—has taken over.”
Yet against considerable odds, four candy manufacturers founded in Virginia have remained in business more than 80 years—two of those, including Helms, for more than a century. They exist in a sweet sort of limbo, selling traditional candies to aging longtime customers and to those customers’ children and grandchildren, who taste nostalgia in every sugary bite.
Meanwhile, other longtime Virginia confectioners have taken a different tack and survived by adapting. When necessary, they changed their names, ownership, product lines and distribution channels to stay relevant and broaden their appeal.
And then there are the upstarts. Within the past 20 years, a couple of Virginia candy manufacturers have succeeded on decidedly modern terms. They’ve embraced Internet sales, tapped into the lucrative corporate-gift market and capitalized on the consumer shift away from hard and stick candy toward chocolate and fudge. Together, they’ve proved that candy making in Virginia has more than a rich past—it also has a bright future.
Ann Litchfield sits in the tiny office of H.E. Williams Candy Co. in Chesapeake, laughing frequently as she relates the long history of her family’s company. Williams Candy still makes Peach Buds (old-fashioned peach candy with a coconut