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Dum Dums are the Spangler Candy Company’s flagship brand. Nic Rowan | Col­legian

If you’ve ever stuck your head inside a bag of Dum Dums and inhaled with an addict’s gusto, then you know what it’s like to breathe as you drive past the Spangler Candy Company factory in Bryan, Ohio.

The man­u­fac­turer behind Dum Dums, Saf-T-Pops, Circus Peanuts, and 45 percent of the candy canes sold in the United States, Spangler, anchored itself in Bryan in 1913. The company got its start as a dry goods company in 1906 and grad­ually focused in on con­fec­tionery pro­duction, becoming nationally sig­nif­icant in the 1950s with the major mar­keting cam­paign sur­rounding Dum Dum Pops, acquired from the Akron Candy Company in eastern Ohio.

Dum Dums are still Spangler’s flagship brand. They account for the sticky-sweet cotton candy smell that per­vades Bryan’s air from the factory floor all the way out to the mural of the company’s familiar mascot, the Dum Dum Drum Man, in the downtown area. Spangler uses the brand’s high profile image to stock its factory store with lol­lipop-themed t-shirts, socks, frisbees, and many other Dum Dum-tagged doodads.     

The company also offers a factory tour, aimed at younger children. It fea­tures a train wired up with rec room-era TVs and — at least when I took the tour last week — a con­ductor named Keith whose grits-and-taters voice brings home Spangler’s credo: This is a family company.

As the last candy cane man­u­fac­turer in the U.S. — even though a little over half of its candy canes are pro­duced in Mexico — Spangler wears its hometown on its sleeve. While many candy com­panies have merged into con­glom­erates and headed to Spanish-speaking lands, Spangler still pro­duces 12 million Dum Dums, 1.7 million candy canes, about 1 million Circus Peanuts, and 500,000 Saf-T-Pops daily in Bryan.

Spangler’s family pride is impos­sible to miss: A museum exhibit on the back wall of the factory’s candy store dis­plays the achieve­ments of four gen­er­a­tions of Spangler lead­ership. The exhibit con­tinues in a small theater behind the candy store that plays a doc­u­mentary pro­duced in-house cat­a­loging the company’s history. I walked into the room just in time to hear the show’s con­clusion, which informed the audience that it was thanks to the miracle of the free market economy that a company like Spangler could thrive.

In the past two years, however, US trade nego­ti­a­tions with Mexico have threatened both Spangler and the small town it sup­ports. A 2017 trade agreement raising the minimum price on Mexican imported sugar, intended to protect American sugar farmers, is putting pressure on Spangler and other food man­u­fac­turers within the U.S.

The blow hits Spangler espe­cially hard because of the company’s alle­giance to Ohio, even as it weathers an eight percent rise in raw sugar prices.

“I’m just very dis­ap­pointed that the Trump admin­is­tration didn’t do more to level the playing field, which is some­thing they promised over and over again to do for the American worker,” Spangler CEO Kirk Vashaw told Reuters. “This was an oppor­tunity to do that, and they didn’t.”

Vashaw added that the company will not waver from its com­mitment to stay in Ohio.

“If it was all about money, we’d do it all in Mexico,” he said.

Vashaw reit­erated his pride in keeping the company family-owned and American-cen­tered within the first five minutes of the tour, when he and former Spangler pres­ident Dean Spangler came onto one of the fuzzy TVs and thanked tourists for coming out to see the factory. While he spoke, a cartoon Dum Dum Drum Man danced across the scene in a flash ani­mated chore­o­graph that would make even Homestar Runner envious.     

Once the video ended, Keith drove us through a room filled with enough polyurethane wrappers to choke a school of Dol­phins. He explained the history of the company, from when founder Arthur Spangler bought it on the steps of the Defiance, Ohio cour­t­house in 1906 to 1911 when it pro­duced Cocoanut Balls, its first candy.

“We didn’t have all the machinery we have now, so we had to open all the coconuts with a hatchet. I’ve often won­dered myself how many fingers that took — but it’s a great mystery —  we’ll never know,” he said.

Keith wouldn’t drive us in to the kitchen, but he played another video to explain how the jars of syrup we just passed become Dum Dums. Once again the video fea­tures the Dum Dum Drum Man, and the mon­tages of whizzing machinery and san­i­tized workers in white uni­forms reminds of an old Mike Rowe doc­u­mentary on potato chip pro­duction in Nebraska.

Before we headed to the packout room to see how Spangler packages and ships (to every bank and non­profit boardroom in the country no doubt), Keith addressed one of the small children on the tour.

“You ever wonder what the Circus Peanut flavor is?”

The kid buried his head in his mom’s arm.

“What does monkeys like to eat?” Keith asked.

The kid popped up.

“Bananas!”

“That’s right,” Keith said. “We’ve been making them that way for years, and no one knows how they got the banana fla­voring.”

As we roll past the workers pack­aging up a fresh batch of candy canes, Keith directs our attention to a series of machines spitting hot Blu Rasp­berry Dum Dums onto cooling plates. The sound is like thou­sands of hail­stones on a tin roof.

“Bryan is a pleasant town to live in” Keith shouted over the din. “You smell Dum Dums every day.”

We moved into the next room, passing a giant American flag tacked to the wall and several plaques devoted to the Team­sters on our way out. A female factory worker waved to us. She was oper­ating a packing machine marked with the sign: “Respect the machine, because it doesn’t respect you.”

Keith chuckled at all the machines moving at rapid speeds in dif­ferent parts of the factory. Although they make the man­u­fac­turing process faster and more effi­cient, he said, Spangler still employs about 530 people full-time in Bryan.

“But one thing about robots,” Keith laughed again. “They’re always on time and they always pass the drug test.”

As the tour ended, Keith parked the train in a room that smelled like the Costco of my childhood. He offered to take our pic­tures and encouraged us to pick up free samples on the way out. As we left, I read the banner painted under the mural: Bryan, the lol­lipop capital of the world — a title kept safe for now.