Note: We’re making July Local History Month on Sistory! There are so many stories in our own backyards, and we’re going to explore them over the next several weeks.
Over my 26 years, I’ve honed a skill that only shows itself rarely, but when it does, I really shine. I’m Bruce Jenner in 1976. I’m Obama in 2008. I am the champion. Should I put it on my resume?
I have a deep encyclopedic knowledge and a sixth sense for detecting the presence of candy in my vicinity.
Which is why it stumps me that I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for nearly 9 months before I discovered the area’s sugar-laden history of manufacturing sweets, a legacy so strong that they called Main Street – already, like, a pretty important name for a street – “Confectioner’s Row.”
I was walking through a rather industrial area one afternoon, and took a shortcut behind a building. I found myself in an alley surrounded by gray, Soviet-style factories, looking uninhabited and foreboding. There was an instantly recognizable scent wafting through the air: Junior Mints. It couldn’t be anything except Junior Mints. Not Andes mints; not York Peppermint Patties. It was clear.
I took a few more steps and breathed in: now, Tootsie Pops. My nose knows. You can’t miss that odd mix of cloying sweetness and muted chocolate. I peered closer at a sign on the factory wall, and indeed found myself facing THE Cambridge home of Tootsie Industries, having a real Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moment. How could this seemingly abandoned, prison-like fortress be pumping out these sweet fragrances? Was there a sad-sack Willy Wonka figure behind these stone walls, churning out candy day after day all alone in his tower, refusing to be seen or to speak to anyone? Could poor little me, a newcomer to Boston, be the one to find the golden ticket and open up this mystery to the masses?
Well, no. It turns out Cambridge’s contribution to American candy manufacturing is extensive and well-documented.
This stuff was all over New England, and Boston especially: America’s first chocolate mill was established in 1765 in Dorchester, and chocolate companies quickly popped up across the city, taking advantage of the cool climate which helped create consistently chewy or hard candy. NECCO Wafers, named for the New England Confectionery Company, were produced as early as 1847 in Fort Point, created by a pharmacist who had a machine for cutting lozenges. (They later manufactured the popular Sweethearts candy as well). Schrafft’s was a chocolate- and cake-making empire in Charlestown. Mary Janes were mass-produced in Paul Revere’s house!
But Cambridge, home to all kinds of factories making everything from pianos to textiles, was a kingpin in the candy world. In 1946, Cambridge had 66 active candy companies operating. These included Squirrel Nut Caramels; Jack Smiley Hard Candies; Fox Cross’s Charleston Chew, notably not made in Charleston; Nabisco’s Kennedy Biscuit Factory, where Fig Newtons were first made in 1891;and the George Close Co., which made Butter Balls and chocolates with collectible baseball cards tucked inside the candy wrapper. The Cambridge Historical Society has an excellent digital tour of the area’s candy history, and you can go step-by-step through the factories, each of which have their own wild stories.
Nearly all of these factories have since stopped operating. The Charleston Chew and Kennedy Biscuit became luxury apartments; the George Close Co. became affordable housing; and even the giant Schrafft’s in Charlestown is now an office building.
But there is one exception: the building I happened by, as it puffed out sweet, sweet Junior Mint fumes. This is the home of the James O. Welch Company, which for decades made Junior Mints, Sugar Daddies, Sugar Mamas and Sugar Babies before getting bought by Nabisco and later by Tootsie Roll Industries. This location churns out 15 million Junior Mints a day.
And here is where my Willy Wonka dreams come at least partly true: Tootsie Roll Industries is one of the most secretive, elusive companies out there. They don’t give tours in the Chicago headquarters or any other site; they don’t capitalize on owning the last standing historic candy factory in Cambridge; their website says virtually nothing about the company’s history or operations. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 that “Tootsie Roll shuns journalists, refuses to hold quarterly earnings calls, and issues crookedly-scanned PDFs for its earnings releases.” Their 95-year-old CEO, Melvin Gordon, died in 2015 and passed the reins to his wife, Ellen, age 83. One of their children, Karen Mills, is a professor at Harvard Business School and the former director of the United States Small Business Administration (!!).
In a rare interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 1980, the Gordons gave vague and dull answers to a reporter, defending their stake in the candy industry and the stock market as they promoted their family-run business, taking pride in one of Halloween’s essential filler candies that nobody eats: the Tootsie Roll. To their credit, Tootsie Rolls have been made for 120 years now; someone must be buying them.
And maybe we all should get on board. Ellen Gordon told the Sentinel, “We’re high on candy, we nibble at it all day– both our and our competitors to see what they’re doing—and our weight hasn’t varied more than a few pounds in years.”