Candy Land

You have to suck on a Peach Bud. Slowly. That’s the proper way to eat one, in my opinion. You have to work the candy nugget until the center pokes through. It is then, and only then, that you bite down with wild, molar-killing abandon and discover the chewy crush of the coconut center as it melds with the sweet hard rock.

No matter your style, H.E. Williams Candy specializes in these exquisite jawbreakers, plus Pineapple Lump, Fancy Mix, Hot Rocks, Mint Puffs, Coconut Tri-Colors and other specialties. Situated in a quiet South Norfolk section of Perry Street, the company’s unassuming barn-like building doesn’t look like the home of Virginia’s longest-surviving candy operation, rather like just another house in the neighborhood.

“We don’t have a salesman,” says Lillie Williams, the energetic 82-year-old who took over the family factory when her husband Harold Eugene passed away in 2002. “Everything we do is word of mouth.”

“People don’t even know we are back here,” laughs Ann Litchfield, 61, Lillie’s daughter, a third generation member of the founding Williams clan to work here. There’s also older brother David, recently retired from Verizon, and her younger brother Gene. Baby brother Joe, 53, works elsewhere, but even he pitches in whenever equipment needs repairing.

To say that this family business is old school would be underselling it. Its candy is still handmade, forged with the same equipment used back in 1919 when the place was founded. H.E. Williams doesn’t have a website, or a Twitter account, or a Facebook page (although some fans have started one). It doesn’t accept credit cards. A small road sign on Perry Street is the full extent of the advertising. The building didn’t even have air conditioning until a few years ago.

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Bagged and stapled with simple white tags, you won’t find the company’s treats in any big-box retailer or large grocery chain. Williams Candy is even too down home for Cracker Barrel. You are more likely to discover Hot Rocks or Fruit Lump in out-of-the-way convenience stores in North Carolina, where the company does most of its business.

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“Mama has always wanted us to stay small,” says employee Tammy Pearce, who just so happens to be Lillie’s ex-daughter-in-law. She’s weighing and stapling bags of Mint Puffs. “We don’t have a computer, fax, anything.” The company relies on the telephone and handles a lot of mail order, especially during the holiday season. “We make more money in December than the whole rest of the year,” Litchfield says.

During the Christmas holidays, factory floor space is taken up with cases of sweets going out to churches, grandmothers, “knick knack” shops, civic organizations and even a Maryland prison. Meanwhile, buyers line up at the front door. Johnny and Sonjia Williams (no relation to the family), are longtime customers. He likes the Hot Rocks, she the Peach Buds. “My aunt once lived nearby,” Sonjia says, “I got the candy from her. Now my sister comes in here and gets candy, my niece comes in …”

This reporter is on a sugar high. I just watched a huge, 100-pound snake of tangy Watermelon Bites curl down a rickety chute (cooled by a house fan) and smash into separated pieces, a big pile of solid color sugar rocks ready to be consumed. 

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"I’m glad I don’t live near this place," I think aloud. "My teeth would never last."

“Oh no, don’t bite them,” Johnny Williams says, passing knowledge. “Thing is, you got to suck on ‘em, get them down to nothing.”

While customers are waited on, a big, 600-case Christmas order has to go out today—one of many pending invoices tacked to the bulletin board facing the sorting table; the staff’s big sack of McDonald's lunch food goes unattended. “We’ve got all the work we can handle,” Gene Williams says, exhaling deeply.

Gene, or “Genie” as mom Lillie calls him, was educated in the school of hard candy by his dad, Harold Eugene Williams, who ran the company for years alongside his mechanical whiz of an uncle, Shafter, Jr., known as Shack. Watching the burly, smiling farmer, 60, make a steaming batch of hard candy is not unlike studying a sculptor as he works his tools or a painter mixing and dripping colors. Gene’s medium is sugar, corn syrup and food coloring.    

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When he was a young boy, Lillie recalls, Gene’s dad would bring him to the factory, where he watched everything intently. “He learned from everybody,” she says. “When he was little, he was his grandma’s favorite. They’d put him on a little stool down there, and he could always tell you if something was wrong—he knew. He’d say, ‘Uncle Shack, you aren’t doing it right.’”

“I’m still like that,” Gene says today, smiling.

 

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.).

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”         

 

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.”
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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. 

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