May 18, 2014

Ad Astra: Kansas candy man became famous for more than chocolates

Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day – not a holiday goes by where things aren’t sweeter thanks to a Kansas man’s ingenuity, luck and business acumen.

Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day – not a holiday goes by where things aren’t sweeter thanks to a Kansas man’s ingenuity, luck and business acumen.

This month marks 126 years since Russell Stover was born in a sod house near Alton in Osborne County in 1888.

Stover’s mother died when he was a toddler. His father moved the family close to Russell Stover’s grandparents in Iowa, according to the Kansas City Public Library online archives. The move allowed him to meet Clara Lewis, whom he would marry in 1911.

The young couple moved to Canada to farm but failed when crops, weather and the economy took a nosedive. They moved back to the Midwest, where he began selling candy for A.G. Morris and Bunte Candy.

At the same time, a 25-year-old schoolteacher who moonlighted at a soda fountain in Omaha was beginning to work on a recipe that blended chocolate and ice cream. It would take the Stovers to perfect it, according to the Russell Stover website.

The teacher, Christian Kent Nelson, called his invention the “I-Scream Bar.” Although Stover didn’t invent America’s first chocolate-covered ice cream bar, he coined its name: Eskimo Pie.

In the spring of 1922, Stover and Nelson met in Omaha to talk about the chocolate ice cream treat. Stover didn’t like the name or the stick that Nelson used for the treat, according to Stover’s website. The two formed a partnership, and Stover made some key changes: Wrap the treat in foil and change the name.

Within 24 hours of the first Eskimo Pie being produced, 250,000 were sold.

It was a stellar beginning for a Kansan whose name would be linked around the world with chocolates. Nearly a century later, Russell Stover Candies is still one of the largest boxed-chocolate manufacturers in the nation.

Nelson is still given credit for inventing the treat. What inspired him was a young boy who came into his Iowa confectionery and couldn’t make a decision between buying a chocolate bar and ice cream, the Stover website said.

Although the Eskimo Pie was a success, the Stovers and Nelson soon were threatened by competitors who copied their idea. Those who stole the idea were called “Pie-rates,” according to the Russell Stover website.

To keep from going bankrupt, the Stovers sold their patent for the Eskimo Pie for $30,000. With their share of the money, they moved to Denver and started making candy in their kitchen. Using Clara Stover’s recipes, they called the new treats “Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies.”

The couple moved their headquarters to Kansas City, Mo., in 1932 and in 1943 changed the name of their company to Russell Stover Candies.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the company’s sales suffered because candy was considered a luxury item. During the war years, sugar and other ingredients in the candies were rationed.

But by 1954, the year Russell Stover died, the company had become one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of chocolate candies.

On his mausoleum in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo., is the Kansas motto: Ad astra per aspera (to the stars through difficulties).

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