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There are two steaming cauldrons in the back of H.E. Williams, each attached to large tanks filled with sugar and heated corn syrup. Gene Williams is about to fix up a batch of Pineapple Lump.
One of the large copper pots is cooking a bubbling sugary water/syrup mixture to 310 degrees for the candy’s outer shell; the other pot, set to 240 degrees, is slated to become the candy’s coconut filling. Nearby are containers of flavoring—some quite expensive. Who knew cherry oil went for $700 a jug? “We had to stop selling our eggnog candy,” he says. “They changed the formula on it, and now it don’t taste like eggnog.”
It takes considerable strength and a high tolerance for heat to create hard candy from scratch. With a pulley, Williams pours the hot sugar lava on a large wooden operating table with indented ridges in the metal top and cold water running underneath.
The mixture forms a shallow pool of goo and begins to cool from the bottom. He then adds color—a spot of orange in one corner, yellow in the middle and dark red on the far side—and flavoring, which causes the tabletop to smoke.
All the while, the mix solidifies into a hard paste. Gene and his assistant Ryan Bray poke at it with metal sticks—from the bottom, like working a flapjack—until it’s formed into separate color piles.
They don’t want any of this to fully harden yet, so smaller pieces are immediately placed on heated rollers to keep moist. Others are hooked to an intriguing pulling machine, patented by the Hildreth Company of Boston in 1908. It's a large belt-driven contraption that twists the goo to rid it of air and helps it to change color (red to pink, etc.).
And then there’s what’s known as the Peach Bud machine. In the company’s first days, this candy transformer with the 12” belt had to be hand-cranked, but it’s long been motorized. “We’ve come a long way, baby,” Gene mock sings.
He and Bray hoist the 50–100 pound slabs of steaming candy to the belt. The smaller batch of sugar lava from the other cauldron, now with copious coconut flakes added, is poured on the table, mixed and molded. The pieces—including the gooey center—are then shaped and handcrafted, in a manner not unlike kneading dough or working at the potter’s wheel.
Gene Williams begins to squeeze the colorful, torpedo-sized candy as it feeds through a machine on a slow-moving platform. It turns the hardening mixture into a long perforated belt—it looks like a psychedelic garden snake as it slithers down a low-angled chute into a waiting bin where bits break off into perfect bite-sized servings. The incoming candy is immediately watered down and sugared, often with sweetening shake left over from the last batch.
“We don’t waste nothing around here,” says Mary Mustin, also known as Sissy (she’s Lillie’s younger sister). “People don’t realize it’s all hand done. And he’s doing it so quick. He’s moving all day long.” She post-preps the pieces and takes them to a table to be sorted and bagged.
“We’ve all worked here from time to time,” Litchfield says. “Sometimes David’s son works here, my brother Joe’s son works here, my grandsons work here, when my daughter was younger, she worked here.”
Business estimates put the annual earnings of Williams Candy at $1.5 to $2 million annually, but Litchfield, who does the company books, says that the revenue is a fraction of that, and that’s fine with the family.
“We are happy with what we have. We don’t work for somebody else; we work for ourselves,” she says. “There’s only about five of us that work all year. During summer, when it’s the hottest, and when candy sales go down, we work two days a week. So when we don’t have to work, we don’t work.”
“When things slow down,” Gene says, “I’m out on my farm working.”
Although they aren’t plugged in to the web, the Williams’ are aware that there are merchants who sell their wares online, at jacked-up prices. A bag of Peach Buds goes for 70 cents at the factory. You’ll buy the same bag, with the Williams label but from a reseller, for more than $3 on Amazon.
Gene just shakes his head. “I get my money. Whatever they want to do with it is up to them.” Aunt Sissy nods her head. “Once it leaves the store, he doesn’t care what happens. He’s just making it.”
David Williams, 62, says that he went to a boutique candy shop in Tennessee where their output was 100 pounds of peppermint per day. “Heck, we do a thousand or more every day in here," he declares. "But they really didn’t know how to make it. Maintaining the temperature is the key.”
David is an advocate for branching out, perhaps opening a retail outlet on Battlefield Boulevard that sells Williams and other candies. “There’s no candy stores out there, and you’d be catching the people going to Nags Head.” He also thinks the time is right for a price change.
Sister Ann disagrees. “I say that you can overprice too high—it’s better to keep selling candy to people than to have less customers. That’s what it’s about.”
Williams Candy often can’t keep up with demand as it is. “We’ve had to limit it to two cases per customer,” Gene says of the holiday rush for fruit lumps and mint puffs. “This one guy, he would dress in different clothes and come back in. The last time I caught him he was dressed as a woman.” He laughs. “He really wanted that Christmas candy.”