Sweet Home Indiana: Candy culture spans the state—past, present, future
Please complete the following phrase: Indiana sweet c______.
If “candy” didn’t come to mind, let me convince you that maybe it should. Peppered across Indiana are confectioneries with resilient immigrant histories that date back over 100 years. Together these candy makers and their customers spin a history of local lore, multi-generational joy and regional traditions.
While their specialties vary from Red Hots to gummi bears, they all share a commitment to excellence—whether through the preservation of the past or a technologically crafted future. Today, for natives and newcomers alike, candy is a sweet way to experience Indiana history.
Here are two candy stores that represent preserved history and emergent history stretching between Indiana’s southern border with Louisville and northern connection to Chicago.
Red Hots at Schimpff’s Confectionery, est. 1891
Schimpff’s Confectionery in Jeffersonville enjoys the distinction of being the only candy store in the state to be continuously in operation for 125 years at the same location. Current owners Warren and Jill Schimpff quite literally curated a candy museum next to the their store. They generously share their knowledge through tours and demonstrations both in person and online. Justifiably, this is the place to start a tour of Indiana’s candy land.
Jill narrates the story of Magdalene Schimpff, widowed and pregnant (with her eighth child), who sent her oldest (at 12) son, along with his uncle, to the U.S. from Germany. Attracted by the large German community, they chose to settle in Louisville, Kentucky. Magdalene arrived with her five next-oldest children (leaving the youngest two in Germany), and started an embroidery business alongside her daughters, while two sons started a confectionery business. In 1891, encouraged by his brother Charles, Gus moved across the Ohio River and opened his store in Jeffersonville. And so the story of Schimpff’s Confectionery began out of necessity, hard work and ambition. In Jill’s retelling of the story, it is apparent that they strive to honor and preserve that history every day.
According to Jill and Warren, candy could only be made between October and April, due to humidity. During the summer months, most candy stores relied on ice cream, soda fountains or lunch service. Jill reminded me that confectioneries also often sold luxury items like oysters, cigars and citrus. The seasonality of candy production conveniently coincided with Christmas. Schimpff’s most popular and vibrant Christmas-colored Red Hots have been made since the store opened in 1891. And the Christmas Fish, sold year round, are still molded with the original dies and also serve as a local reference to Ohio River fish.
Another example of regional tradition is the caramel-covered marshmallow, Modjeska, named after the 19th century Polish-American actress Helena Modjeska, who performed in Louisville. The confection is called Caramallows in Chicago and elsewhere. These connections to happy holiday celebrations, regional references and climate helped Schimpff’s Confectionery locally root and grow.
Gummi Bears at Albanese Candy Store, est. 1983
Moving north towards Chicago brings us forward in time to 1983 and the Albanese Confectionery group in Merrillville, boasting the best gummies in the U.S. If that alone was not enough to encourage your visit, their bustling candy store is the largest by volume in the country.
With an Italian background, Scott Albanese decided to open a confectionery business in order to support his growing family. Through relentless hard work and research he transformed himself from bricklayer to gummi bear king. His daughter, Bethany, now director of operations and marketing manager, tells a story of taste-testing her dad’s gummi bear experiments around the dinner table with her friends. They are the only company to offer 12 flavors; their most popular are blue raspberry, cherry and green apple. They also offer chocolate-covered nuts, pretzels, malts, espresso beans and more.
Like most candy stores, they are busiest during Christmas time. Looking through the windows into the gummi production floor with its robotic arms and mechanical production lines, it is easy to imagine future tours that will explain, “This is how candy was made in 21st century Indiana.”
Indiana’s preserved and emergent candy history reveals complex regional roots, immigrant ambitions and community celebrations. “Memories rekindled, memories made,” says Jill at Schimpff’s.