My father, the candy man
My father Sterling Putnam had been a weaver in the Knox Mill during my childhood, but Mr. Stevenson, the candymaker, died in February 1950 and Dad knew immediately that he wanted to buy Stevenson’s Candy Store. It had been his lifelong ambition to be a candymaker and this was his chance. Dad grew up in farm homes where butter, milk, and eggs were plentiful, and as well as being a good farmer, he was always interested in cooking, especially candy.
With mother’s help the business prospered with the new energy and soon in 1955, they opened Putnam’s Candy Kitchen on Route 1 in Rockport. Dad sold his house on Megunticook Street and built the new place large enough for an apartment and a new candy kitchen, a new chocolate dipping machine and other machinery increased production significantly enough to supply both stores. I never cease to marvel at Dad’s ability to pick up and go on those ventures having never had any real experience in the candy business. He would go around to other candy stores to talk with the candy makers there, and he’d watch them do things; then he’d go home and do it. Sometimes a salesman that would tell him about what others were doing. Sometimes he just tried something new and it would work.
Helen and I had often helped Mr. Stevenson (Helen’s grandfather) with Christmas candy, but this was the first time we saw it done in the new kitchen and on such a large scale. Dad started before Thanksgiving to make ribbon candy; peppermint, wintergreen, cinnamon, clove and molasses. The molasses was so popular that they packed up boxes of it separately as well as mixed in with other flavors. By Thanksgiving the place was overflowing with ribbon candy, thin, crunchy and flavorful. People would come in just to smell when Dad was cooking. The smell of fresh chocolate, peppermints or fresh roasted nuts could be quite a treat in itself but it was difficult to go away without buying something.
Most of you know that hard candy is not hard when you finish cooking it. It’s a very runny syrup. Only when it cools does it get hard. Between the syrup stage and the hard stage is the candy maker’s time to make it into whatever he wants. Mr. Stevenson once made (in 1923) a complete model fire truck that was on display for years upstairs in the old fire station. As I recall, it was more than three-feet long, and must have weighed at least fifty pounds. Anyway, we all got a kick out of watching Dad pour out his hard candy on his flat, water-cooled steel table that had taken the place of the old marble table used in years past. Dad would turn the water on, and then pour out his kettle full of syrup. Everybody would gasp as the syrup went sluicing across the table toward the edge, surely heading for the floor. But quickly the cold steel would draw out the heat and the syrup would slow to a crawl, just inches from the edge.
Dad had a rope from the ceiling with a hook that would hold one kettle handle so he could use a big steel spatula to clean out the copper kettle. Then a tool like a big paint scraper would flip back the edges of the syrup from the edge of the table into the middle. When the batch was cool enough to handle with leather gloves, he would pull it on the hook just like taffy. But first he would take big pair of scissors and cut off a couple generous hunks of candy to be colored and used for the stripes. Pulling on the hook would cause the transparent syrup to turn milky white and the leather gloves added a luster that could not be achieved with bare hands, even if the candy were not too hot to touch.
Sometime in the process, time was found to color the two lumps not pulled and they became a transparent red or green or some other color as the case may call for. If the batch were to be ribbon candy, the colored lumps would be adhered to the main loaf in appropriate places to make stripes as the entire loaf was placed under heaters and pulled gently but firmly into long, thin ribbons. Then grab the scissors again and cut off at the mark on the workbench and do it again. Someone else takes the thin ribbon and deftly shapes it into a hand-crimped piece of ribbon candy, or more often, runs it through the neat little crimping machine and sets it aside on a metal surface to cool. Timing is of the essence in the crimping — not too hot, not too cool.
After Thanksgiving came the candy canes, mostly peppermint and wintergreen, maybe a few cinnamon, in all sizes. And of course the traditional giant cane to raffle off for some worthy charity, bigger than ever because Dad’s standard batch of hard candy for ribbon and canes was 35 pounds of sugar. He just made a single cane out of a full batch. The problem was in the cooling. Small canes would cool nicely by rolling them on a metal surface for a few minutes. The rolling kept them round until just at the last minute before they hardened completely, a little elf would take the candy stick and wrap one end around a little bottle cap to give it a nice round-shaped crook and set it on another metal surface to cool.
I guess I’ve rambled on enough, but felt to share pleasant memories of sights and smells of a candy store in times past and especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Perhaps you, too, remember the good smells of cooking candy drifting down Main Street, or of nuts roasting as you left the movie theater across the street. God has blessed us with many good memories and its always fun to share them with others.