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Shafter Litchfield Williams, the patriarch who started the candy making, was originally from the town of Rodanthe on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. No one knows how he got into the confectionary line, a growing field in the early 20th century, but sometime around 1917 he went to the Weatherly Candy Company in Elizabeth City to learn the technical aspects of the trade. Weatherly Candy had been around since 1887, a regional pioneer in mass candy production, and young Shafter discovered how to make a variety of treats at their facility—including little nuggets they called “Peach Goodies.”
Once his apprenticeship was over, Williams came to Virginia, settling in the Berkeley area, on the Norfolk side of the tracks, and started the S.L. Williams Candy Company. (There’s a story that Charles Forbes, the founder of Forbes Candies in Virginia Beach, studied alongside Shafter. But Forbes started his saltwater taffy business in the 1930s and would’ve been a mere lad of 7 when S.L. Williams set up shop.)
He took over a large building, the size of a city block, at Alleghany and Bainbridge Streets, and proceeded to manufacture several varieties of hard candy, as well as specialty lollipops, peanut brittle and a popular item known as a Coconut Icee— sugary icing slathered in shavings.
When granddaddy Shafter died in 1939, his wife Irma Kathleen Williams took over the company. She ran it until 1967 and was, by all accounts, a force of nature. “My grandmother was a skinny little thing,” Ann Litchfield says. “People would bring the trucks out there, and the guys would say, ‘Who’s going to load them?’ and she’d say, ‘Stand aside; I’ll load them myself.’”
“Mrs. Williams took the company through the war, but sugar and supplies were hard to get, so she had to stop selling some of the stuff,” Lillie says. For a time, the front half of the building was rented to a burlap bag company.
When grandmother Irma died, the company passed to Harold Eugene and his brother Shafter, Jr. a.k.a. Shack, two talented, fun-loving guys. “My husband built a homemade gyrocopter,” Lillie says. “And Shack put together a home-built airplane. It won trophies at air shows.” Tinkering in his basement, Shack also invented several candy-making contraptions, including the company’s sucker machines. “The first sucker machine that he made did them like a Tootsie Pop,” she remembers, “and a company in New Jersey bought it and put the bubble gum in it.”
Yes, the origins of the blow pop start in South Norfolk.
For most of its existence, S.L. Williams sold candy through wholesalers and via smaller grocery chains and mom and pop businesses. By the early ‘80s, the original warehouse building was in need of attention, and so was the company. Thankfully, the highway administration came in to save the day.
“When Interstate 464 came through, they took our building and did us a big favor,” Ann Litchfield says. “The building was so old that the floor was falling through, the roof was falling apart. We were constantly replacing windows every week because of the kids breaking them out.”
After moving to the smaller Perry Street location, S.L. Williams realigned. Harold Eugene bought out brother Shafter, and the name was changed to H.E. Williams and Company. Still shipping its wares to outside businesses, it eventually discontinued the peanut brittle and suckers and concentrated on the hard candy. Williams also started accepting more and more walk-in customers at the cozier location.
“Candy is one of life’s simple pleasures, meant to be enjoyed,” H.E. Williams told The Virginia Beach Sun in 1991. “You can buy jelly beans in 26 places, but you can only buy peach buds through me.”
Lillie says that her husband always kept the candy affordable, and she wants to continue that tradition.
“We make just enough to survive, to see the family through, and maybe a little bit extra. But I don’t want to gouge nobody, and I don’t want them to gouge me. That’s just the way we were all brought up.”
Beth Shellhart brought her young kids, Aaron and Grace, into H.E. Williams today. “We live a couple of blocks over, and we didn’t even know that there was a candy factory here,” she says.
After Gene shows them how he makes pineapple lump, Shellhart ends up purchasing several bags of assorted candy. “These are gifts for my family,” she says, exiting. “We’re going to give them a little bit of South Norfolk History.”
In three years, Williams Candy will turn one century old. “I hope I’m still here,” Lillie says. She was stricken with cancer in 1999, the same year that her husband suffered complications from triple bypass heart surgery. She survived; he didn’t.
Now free of cancer, Lillie says that she is leaving the company and her 18-acre farm to her four kids when she passes away. But what happens next to H.E. Williams Candy is still up in the air. Making handmade hard candy is becoming a disappearing tradition. “Some of the fourth generation don’t want to do this,” Gene says. “They say it’s too hard.”
Lillie Williams mentions that she recently bought another candy company out, a place in North Carolina. The owner couldn’t find workers who could make the stuff by hand anymore. “I ended up buying it mainly for the old equipment they had,” she says, “in case something of ours was ever to break.”
The H.E. Williams Candy Company is located at 1230 Perry Street in Chesapeake. 757-545-9311.