Candy making in Bristol
There is no visible sign. The exterior of the building is nondescript, with no distinctive architectural features. It sits well outside the Bristol, Tennessee, business district, in a neighborhood, actually. An old Studebaker repair shop and the Shelby Street Church of God flank the unassuming structure. Their missions are clear: Fix cars and save souls.
But a first-time visitor would have no way of figuring out the purpose of the mysterious business at 1416 Shelby Street, unless the company van happened to be parked outside.
Inside, a dark and labyrinthine walk through tight doors and around a maze of tables leads to a spot in the very back of the building, where a father and son are boiling water and sugar in an ancient kettle.
You have entered a candy wonderland. Pure sugar-stick candy has been made here for over 60 years. Ken Ratliff and his son Mike work elbow to elbow, handling molten hot liquid, manipulating gas flames, and struggling to keep volumes of family candy-making knowledge from dying away.
Today the cities of Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia, define themselves largely through country music and NASCAR. In 1927, Victor Records talent scout and producer Ralph Peer came to town and recorded the likes of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Stoneman Family. Those Bristol Sessions would come to be known as the “Big Bang of Country Music,” as Johnny Cash once said. Bristol Motor Speedway, which seats about 150,000 people, is known as “the world’s fastest half mile.” It has hosted races since 1961.
But there was an era when the two Bristols were also defined by their confections. At one time in the middle of the 20th century, the cities were home to some 10 different candy companies, all making versions of the pure sugar-stick candy so popular in the Appalachian Mountains. That candy, often packaged in a stark white box with a single red stripe around it, was a Christmas treat for many generations of mountain children. Sometimes it was their only Christmas present.
Today, those ten companies have dwindled to two. On the Virginia side, Helms Candy Company has been in continuous operation since the year 1909. Its product line has expanded over the years to include fruity lollipops and nutraceutical products like Get Better Bear Sore Throat Pops, but the company continues to make peppermint stick candy. Red Band and Virginia Beauty are two surviving brands. Horehound sells big in the wintertime, when folks claim it cures colds.
On the Tennessee side of the divided city, Ratliff is the only remaining candy producer. With so much competition in the candy business in the 1950s, Ken’s father Lewis and his mother Hattie had to differentiate their product line. What they came up with was the candy cane basket, and they taught their son the technique. Grandson Mike Ratliff is the company’s third-generation basket maker.
Despite the Ratliffs’ low-key approach to advertising and promotion, Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan got wind of the baskets and carried them in the company catalog for several years. Aretha Franklin became a customer, too. And an order once came in from First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who used the baskets to decorate for Christmas in the White House during her husband’s presidency.
Helms Candy may employ a couple of dozen people or more, depending on the season. But at Ratliff, the work force rarely exceeds two. In the course of an hour, Ken and Mike turn that kettle of hot amber liquid into handmade works of art. On a pulling machine that dates to 1912, the amorphous goo becomes white candy. When the Ratliffs first pour the liquid onto the cooling table, they knead and fold it with a metal spring from a Model T Ford, the same spring Lewis Ratliff used all his candy-making life. The molds that Hattie created for the shaping of the basket handles are still in use today.
Ken and Mike have made thousands of runs of candy, but they still marvel at how the product turns white when you pull it, and they love to watch reactions when a smell of pure peppermint flavoring is offered to the nose.
Ken says Mike is the best striper he has ever seen. A jacket of stripes wraps around a huge hunk of candy, which is then placed on a batch roller and turned into ropes. Those ropes are fashioned into baskets. Customers keep them for years.
“And he’s the best braider I’ve ever seen, too,” Ken says as his son takes two ropes of candy and, in a few deft motions, shapes a handle that he soon attaches to a large red and white basket.
This college political science major and his son, a former baseball player, don’t seek recognition for their work. They tell me they grant usually one magazine or newspaper interview a year. But as Bristol honors NASCAR drivers, country music legends, and, most recently, goes wild over college football, its candy makers deserve a place in the annals of the Twin Cities, too. Considering the ever-decreasing number of craftspeople who practice it today, their quiet art is poignantly sweet.
About the author: Fred Sauceman’s latest book is Buttermilk & Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia, published by Mercer University Press in Macon, Georgia.