A bittersweet goodbye to our beloved chocolate factory

By on January 28, 2016
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Old photos from the Sketch Mearig Collection

History of an icon

The story of Wilbur Chocolate originally began in Philadelphia in 1865, when Henry Oscar Wilbur entered into a candy making partnership with Samuel Croft.

As Croft, Wilbur & Company, they primarily produced hard and molasses candy for almost 20 years.

The business was very successful, which lead them to move their original operation from 125 N. Third St. to a much larger factory at 1226 Market St. Then, in 1884, the partners split their business into two entities. Croft continued to manufacture candy with a new partner, and named this business Croft and Allen. Meanwhile, H. O. Wilbur & Sons, as their name suggested, started a chocolate-making effort between Wilbur and his two sons, Harry and William. Bertram, Wilbur’s oldest son, became a partner when Harry passed away in 1900.

By 1887, the company decided that a newer facility was needed to keep up with demand, so the business moved to Third, New and Bread streets in Philadelphia. This was also the same year that the “stirring cupid” (the company’s logo) was introduced.

Then, in 1894, history was made. H. O. Wilbur, while looking for ways to sell more of his chocolate, created a process where the warm liquid was “dropped” into a uniquely-shaped mold that resembled a flower bud. It proved successful, and the Wilbur Bud was born!

Meanwhile in Lititz, in 1900, the Kendig Chocolate Company was formed. They were sold two years later, and the name changed to the Ideal Chocolate Company. Soon after, a newer plant was built at 48 N. Broad St., next to the Reading and Columbia railroad station. This location proved very beneficial, as ingredients could easily be received by rail. Then, on Valentine’s Day in 1902, their name was changed to the Ideal Cocoa and Chocolate Company. Products such as nut lunch and almond bars, chocolate cigars, and Ideal-brand cocoa powder were among their items for sale.

In April of 1913, it was announced that due to the increasing demand of their products, a five-story addition to the plant would be constructed.

Ideal remained in business until 1927, when it merged with the Brewster Chocolate Company of Newark, N.J. This new company was renamed the Brewster-Ideal Chocolate Company.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia in the late 1920s, H. O. Wilbur & Sons began business discussions with the Suchard Societe Anonyme of Switzerland to secure the rights to sell Suchard chocolate. By 1928, the rights were purchased, and Wilbur changed its name to the Wilbur-Suchard Chocolate Company.

A few years later, they joined with Lititz’s Brewster-Ideal Chocolate Company. It was via this merger that Wilbur’s operations were relocated to Lititz in August of 1930. The move was fully completed by 1933.

In late 1958, the name was changed to the Wilbur Chocolate Company, and on Oct. 18, 1968, the company was purchased by the MacAndrews and Forbes Company. Between 1980 and 1992, the company was sold four times, with the present owner, Cargill, purchasing it in 1992.

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Sweet success

Through the years, all of the companies would do heavy advertising. From specially-inserted cards containing flags from around the world, to collectible “soldiers of the allies” cut-outs, to tins of all shapes and sizes. Many times, they gave their customers a small freebie or bonus with every purchase. One year, the Ideal company even placed a small booklet on the history of Lititz in each package of specially-marked boxes of their assorted chocolates.

Many who grew up years ago in the Lititz area no doubt remember visiting Santa Claus. More often than not, the big friendly fellow would reward each child with an orange and a box of Wilbur-Suchard chocolates. Sponsoring youth baseball teams, employee bowling leagues, and advertising on large billboards were several other ways that the company would market its products throughout the community and beyond.

LR20160128_Wilbur9Due to the high quality and delicious taste of their wares, it’s no surprise that the company eventually caught the eye of savvy promotion people. In 1978, a large crowd gathered in front of the building as Muhammad Ali himself stood at the door and introduced his new Crisp Crunch Bar, a peanut butter-flavored candy bar containing crisp rice.

But this wouldn’t be the last time Wilbur Chocolate would be affiliated with national sports.

In 1982, a gentleman came up with the idea to market a chocolate bar with crisp rice for the Milwaukee Brewers. The product was an instant sell-out all over Wisconsin, especially when the team advanced to the World Series. A few years later, the same person came up with the idea to create a bar for the Cleveland Indians. Where were both of these successful candy bars produced? None other than Wilbur Chocolate in Lititz!

The company would continue to catch the eye (and palates) of celebrities, from country music sensation Randy Travis to the Food Network’s Alton Brown (both of whom have been spotted shopping on separate occasions). Who knows what other stars have flown under the radar and visited the store undetected? And who can forget then-presidential-hopeful Barack Obama, who, in 2008, visited the retail store with news reporter Dan Rather amid a swarm of the press and public.

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Bittersweet memories

For several years, a little girl named “Sue Shard” was the fictional advertising face of the Wilbur-Suchard Chocolate Company, and in 1946 a contest was held to find a look-alike. The winner would serve as the ambassador of the Lititz-based operation and become an instant local celebrity.

Maureen McEvoy from Lancaster won the contest, and while it’s been 70 years since she’s been in the spotlight, she still has special memories of the company. She currently lives in Maryland, and was saddened when she learned that chocolate production is coming to an end on Broad Street.

“A genuine first gut response was one of melancholy,” she said. “In my mind, and I’m probably not alone, Wilbur Chocolate IS Lititz! Once I became associated with the company long ago, I developed an inner loyalty, and taste buds that accompanied it, that rivaled my former allegiance to one of their major competitors…the big “H” (Hershey). My second reaction was sincere sadness for those long-standing employees who will now be jobless as a result.”

LR20160128_Wilbur17In the 1940s, the company would hold Christmas parties for their employees, with the night often ending with a few dance numbers by “The Wilburettes,” the company’s version of the famed Rockettes.

Lititz resident Pearl Enck was one of these lovely ladies, and she looks back on those performances with glee.

“My mother and Florence Himmelberger made all of the dresses,” she recalled. “Everything was handmade. We danced to modern songs and big band tunes.”

Her job at the plant between 1943 and 1945 was to relieve workers when they went on break. As a result, she learned to run almost every machine in the factory.

She was shocked by the news of the plant closing.

“It surprised me very much,” she said. “I never thought they’d close. Everybody in my family, it seemed, worked there. It was a very nice place to work.”

Anna Charles was employed by the company for 25 years. She knew that at some point the Broad Street factory would become obsolete.

“I was very proud to have worked for Wilbur Chocolate, serving as administrative assistant for operations,” she said. “The processes in the building are not as efficient as they could be. I’m not surprised. I thought it would have happened sooner. It’s just not efficient.”

Now, she, along with many Lititz residents, can only wonder about the future of the property.

“My dream for that building is to see a mixed-use,” she said. “Perhaps retail space, professional offices, and maybe expand the retail store.”

Editorial

No matter what its fate may be, the “sweet” memories will remain. And while a piece of local history may be gone, it is even sadder to realize the amount of job loss that comes with the closing.

As the last truck leaves the premises, and as the final employee turns off the lights for the last time, we, as the lovers of all things Wilbur Chocolate, must sadly come to the bittersweet realization that this special part of Lititz has now left the building. Production had to be moved to a facility elsewhere, just as H.O. Wilbur himself had to do many years ago.

It’s the end of an era.

Certainly, the decision by the powers that be was not an easy one to make, but for the time being, we need to remain optimistic, and find a way to somehow put a smile on our faces.

Maybe eating a few Wilbur Buds will help.

Wilbur fun facts

  • Before the factory was built, Martin & Muth’s coal and lumber yard on Broad Street was considered the most desirable location for the new plant. It was purchased in 1902 for $15,000.
  • After the Wilbur plant in Philadelphia closed, that property was renovated into “The Chocolate Works,” a five-building apartment complex.
  • A special Liberty Bell-shaped glass jar was filled with candy and sold by Croft, Wilbur, and Company at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. This unique keepsake was the very first glass candy container ever produced.
  • Mickey Mouse appeared on an early toasted nut and chocolate Wilbur-Suchard candy wrapper in the 1930s.
  • Rumor has it that Milton Hershey, when trying to make a go in the chocolate industry, modeled his Hershey Kiss after H.O. Wilbur’s creation on purpose, so customers would think that they were actually purchasing the tried and true Wilbur Bud, which was introduced 13 years earlier.
  • In 1972, Penny Buzzard, wife of the company’s president, created the Candy Americana Museum inside the Lititz retail store. It continues to be a top Lititz tourist attraction today.
  • In 1982, in nearby Mount Joy, Wilbur purchased a second facility from the Bachman Candy Company in an effort to expand operations to keep up with demand.
  • Many years ago in New York City, Wilbur chocolates were available in subway station vending machines for a penny a piece. What a bargain!
  • During World War II, “ration bars” were given to soldiers. These sweet treats were a small, dense Wilbur chocolate bar containing toffee.

Cory Van Brookhoven is a freelance feature writer and president of the Lititz Historical Foundation. He welcomes reader feedback at coryvb@hotmail.com.

 

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