When sugar helped fuel industry in Philadelphia

Spreckels Sugar Refinery in late-19th-century Philadelphia, part of the Berley Brothers' collection in "Oh, Sugar" at the Seaport Museum.
Spreckels Sugar Refinery in late-19th-century Philadelphia, part of the Berley Brothers' collection in "Oh, Sugar" at the Seaport Museum.
Posted: August 16, 2013

A trademark earnestness and delight in quirky discovery suffused the cluttered, third-floor loft above Old City's vintage Franklin Fountain one morning last week.

The curious Berley Brothers (Eric and Ryan), dressed in their customary period attire, heavily dependent on knickers and bow ties, were showing off their newfound collection of sugar (and, thus, also candy) memorabilia.

Out of cardboard sleeves, they slipped black-and-white photos of cane-cutting in Hawaii, of half-naked workers in the West Indies stoking fires as ferocious as a steam engine's, of industrial giants on the Delaware riverfront where the world's largest sugar-maker in the day (Franklin Sugar Refining) held sway in 1900, and of clever, still-working, hand-crank machines that even in Philadelphia's humblest corner candy shop could click out small mountains of embossed cough drops, and candy sticks braided like ropes, strands of chewing gum and fragile belts of ribbon candy that, in many homes, were the hallmark of Christmas.

The Berleys own the Fountain, the old-fashioned ice cream parlor on the ground floor. And a few years ago, they unveiled their latest project on Market Street east of Second: the meticulous revival of Shane Confectionary, by certain measures America's oldest, handcrafting candy shop.

The sugar paraphernalia? It started piling up recently when Craig Bruns, the curator of the Independence Seaport Museum, invited the brothers to mount an exhibit in the museum's "community gallery," space set aside for locals who have tales to tell about the city's halcyon seafaring past.

Indeed, the connection isn't a stretch: The original mahogany carvings and tiles at Shane's depict seashells, visual nods to its origins a century ago selling sweets to the ferryboat and Shore-bound trade.

Bruns often walks past the Berleys' two shops. And soon the curator and the candy-makers found common cause.

The result is "Oh, Sugar," the Berleys' take on a chapter (actually, chapters) in what they call "Philadelphia's Sweet Story: The Magical Transformation from Cane to Candy."

It opens Friday, at the Seaport Museum on Penn's Landing, 211 S. Columbus Blvd., at Walnut Street. (phillyseaport.org).

To its credit, it does not sugarcoat the darker side of the early sugar trade - its reliance on enslaved African cane-cutters in the West Indies (fueled by scraps of salt cod eagerly supplied by ostensibly liberty-loving New Englanders); sugar's role (through various British-imposed taxes on molasses and sugar and Madeira) in stoking revolutionary zeal in the colonies; cane sugar's trumping by cheaper high-fructose corn syrups (popularized when sugar was rationed during World War II) that have become the engine of a ballooning Fast Food Nation.

So, yes, the strange career of sugar's rise and fall and transformation, in its fullest telling, is hardly all light, or sweetness.

The narrow byways of Philadelphia's Old City, and the expansive river wards stretching north and south, are an open-air sugar museum themselves, a ghost city within the city, clues to its younger self hiding in plain sight.

Walk down Church Street near Christ Church, and you encounter the Sugar Refinery Apartments, retrofitted from a five-and-later-eight-story refinery dating to 1792.

It was famous - infamous? - for two things. By the mid-19th century, its owners had figured out how to purify sugar without the requisite addition, in the day, of bull's blood. Secondly, in order to mystify New York refiners eager to learn its trade secrets, it was equipped with a Willy Wonkalike room crammed with pipes and valves that was entirely a sham; the valves would regularly be opened and closed to no actual purpose, their job simply to throw industrial spies off the scent.

On North Third Street, just beneath the Ben Franklin Bridge, is the repurposed Wilbur Chocolate Factory (currently the luxury Chocolate Factory Apartments). Very faintly, you can still make out the WILBUR logo marching down its old smokestack, and make out the faded lettering on brick facades, some erected in the Civil War era.

Like most candy-makers along the Delaware - including the fledgling, repeat-failure Milton Hershey (before he seized on mechanized chocolate-making) - Wilbur's business started with molasses and hard candies.

It was not until 1893 that it created its enduring signature item, the molded, dark-chocolate Wilbur Bud. It would be 14 years later, in 1907, before Hershey came out with his silver-wrapped Kiss, extruded with a lip-smacking sound on conveyor belts, quickly outselling Wilbur's original, but still abidingly tastier, model.

So the confectionary story went, from small sugar operations blocks from the river, to the very waterfront itself. The massive factories and the candy-makers they fed are gone now, the refineries and the plants that churned out Whitman's Chocolates, and the movie house staples Goobers and Raisinets.

Lately, in their shadow, upstart artisan shops have sprouted, reminiscent of the city's first wave of small craftsmen.

You don't have to look hard, traveling down Columbus Boulevard (near Callowhill Street), to spot the burial ground of one of the last of the Mohicans - the old Jack Frost Sugar Refinery in Fishtown that operated until 1984, that was demolished (after a few tries with 700 pounds of explosives), leaving a vacant, weedy lot until about four years ago.

Today, it's the SugarHouse Casino, featuring on its 45,000-square-foot gambling floor - in place of paychecks and manufacturing - pocket-picking slots and a snack bar named Jack's.

Finally, there's reborn Shane Confectionary itself, where hard candy and Moravian-inspired clear toys are still made with sugar melted down in copper kettles and streamed into antique molds of plump Santas and yellow lions and grand sailing ships of the very sort that once upon a time plied the Delaware down the street, bringing the bittersweet fruits of Caribbean cane to a new and craving world.

Its candy - the Berley brothers' candy - will be available at the Seaport exhibit.

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