Premium Quality Candies Made in the USA Since 1909
Helms Candy Company manufacturers a variety of candies such as old fashioned peppermint sticks, mints, peanut butter stick candy, horehound candy, fruit flavored lollipops, and nutraceutical products.
Our nationally known brands include Red Band Stick Candy,Virginia Beauty Stick Candy, Helms Brand Candies, King Pops, Get Better Bear Sore Throat Pops and Custom Printed Wrapper Lollipops.
We’re a family-owned company and are proud to make our products in Bristol, Virginia.
Helms Candy Company preserves a sweet tradition
by Fred Sauceman for the Kingsport Times-News
It’s one of our region’s most beloved symbols: a stark white box with a red stripe around it. Stacked inside are rows of pure sugar stick candy.
The peppermint-flavored sticks are sweet links to the past. A mention of them in almost any situation elicits stories of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and detailed memories of their candy jars.
Pure sugar stick candy brightened life in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and West Virginia. In impoverished sections of Appalachia, boxes of Red Band candy, or even just a few sticks, may have been the only presents children received for Christmas.
When the candy is poured from a copper kettle onto a slab that is heated to around 275 degrees, it is amber in color. The humidity of the room is under constant watch, ensuring that the final product won’t become sticky.
In 1976, Helms purchased Loudy Candy Company, a business started by the late Frank Loudy at a time in the 1940s when sugar was being rationed in America. The little boy in neon lights that sits atop the Helms building on Lee Highway was Loudy’s creation. In 2005, Helms acquired competitor Moretz Candy and its Red Band label. Helms also sells candy under the Virginia Beauty label.
Peppermint is still by far the best-selling flavor. But, like the world of barbecue, I discovered that there are regional variations in stick candy taste.
“Down in Georgia, clove is number two to peppermint,” Buzz tells me. “They like those bright flavors down there, the spicier flavors. In Kentucky, they like cream stick, which is a vanilla. And in Kentucky and Tennessee, horehound is still big.”
While the twin cities of Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, have come to be known for racing and country music, the role of candy-making in their history should never be forgotten.
At one time, the two Bristols were home to some 10 candy companies, all of them making versions of pure sugar stick candy. Over the years, their buildings and businesses were either acquired or abandoned.
But on the Lee Highway, on the Virginia side, Helms Candy Company is thriving, with 14 full-time employees. It’s a fourth-generation family business, and the core of that business is still peppermint-flavored pure sugar stick candy.
Helms traces its origins to 1909 when Frank Helms Sr. opened Bristol Wholesale Grocery, saw a need for a line of candy, and started making his own.
His great-grandson, George F. “Buzz” Helms IV, runs the company today, along with his brother Mark and sister Debby Smith. Their father, George F. Helms III, died in September of this year at age 90.
Buzz Helms believes his family’s candy company is the oldest manufacturing facility in Bristol. L.C. King, makers of work clothes, opened four years after Helms, in 1913.
In a recent visit to Helms, I asked Buzz why Bristol became the undeniable epicenter of pure sugar stick candy making in America.
“The elevation is just right for cooking the candy,” he answered. “We’re not in the lowlands, and we don’t have tremendous humidity. We’re close to population centers and had good railroad facilities. And we’ve had a good, willing labor force.”
Buzz says cooking the candy is still an old craft and a very simple one. “The ingredients are sugar, cream of tartar, flavor, and color. It’s made by boiling with water, then it’s cooled and pulled like taffy, which is where the white comes from, the air. Then we stripe it.”
Horehound is a perennial herb, and Buzz describes it as “an acquired taste.” In the Helms family files is a letter their great-grandfather wrote to a broker in Kentucky in 1951, predicting the demise of horehound candy because of aging demographics.
“That was nearly 70 years ago, and we’re still making it like crazy,” Buzz adds. “People make cough syrup with it.”
Helms Candy is available at Food City and Ingles stores. Most of what is typically on their shelves is peppermint. The entire line of flavors is available at Kingsport’s Ben Franklin, including cherry, cinnamon, lemon, orange, sassafras, strawberry, wintergreen, and more. Peppermint is also sold there in the form of small puffs, and Ben Franklin carries another variety of Helms candy, the popular broken peanut butter sticks.
Pure sugar stick candy gets even better as it ages. “When it’s first made, it’s really hard,” Buzz says. “Then it goes through a sweating and graining process. We’ll start making candy for next Christmas right after this Christmas, and it sits in the warehouse and gets softer.”
Buzz describes pure sugar stick candy as “an incredibly stable product, with nothing in it that will go bad.” Candy that is as much as three years old or even more is still good.
In addition to eating them right out of the box or candy dish, some people use the porous sticks as straws, plunging them down into oranges to drink the juice. And crumbled peppermint sticks are often used as a topping for holiday cakes.
After witnessing the daily ritual of making pure sugar stick candy once again, I asked Buzz about the challenges in keeping the business going for more than 111 years now.
“It’s a tall order with the economy. Think of how many wars my family has lasted through, and presidencies, depressions, and recessions. We’ve kept trudging through all that. It’s a huge responsibility to keep it going.”
Fred Sauceman is the Senior Writer and Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University and the News Director of WETS-FM/HD at East Tennessee State University. Fred Sauceman on Facebook | Fred Sauceman on Twitter
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