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.
“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.