JOLIET – It’s that time of year when visions of sugarplums are supplanted by memories of G-Shaft candy – at least for many.
G-Shaft candy is a local favorite, made today at Dan’s Homemade Candies in Joliet, and a Christmas tradition that dates back to 1881.
It still is a popular item, especially around Christmastime.
A woman from Braidwood had just been in the other day for a large order, Annette Smith said last week while working the counter at Dan’s.
“She bought 18 one-pound [bags] and three half-pounds,” Smith said. “She said she passes them out as gifts for friends and family.”
G-Shaft candy is not the only candy at the store that has origins in the Christmas season, Dan’s co-owner Kris Collins said. But it is one with a particular local flavor – so to speak.
“G-Shaft definitely. That is a huge Christmas item,” Collins said.
Back in 1881
Orders come in from around the country during the holidays, Collins said. Mostly, they are from people who at one time lived in the Coal City or Braidwood area, where the candy has its origins.
The story of G-Shaft candy has been documented in The Herald-News over the decades.
The hard, brown, cylindrical candy with a complex peppermint flavor is traced to Harriet Williamson, whose husband, William, was killed in 1881 in a mine accident in Braidwood, according to a Herald-News article from April 9, 1984.
To support her family, Harriet began making the candy first known as “Bulls Eye.” Later it was named G-Shaft after the name of the mine located near the Williamsons’ home. The mines were named alphabetically.
At one point, there was a G-Shaft Candy Shop in Braidwood.
The candy name is hyphenated today, although it wasn’t always.
After Harriet’s death, her son, Harry, took up G-Shaft candy. He started the Harry Williamson Candy Co. in Minooka. By 1984, Frank Williamson was making G-Shaft candy in Herscher.
The coal mines are gone, but G-Shaft candy has endured, thanks in part to its appeal and also to the dedication of families to continue the recipe.
Dan’s obtained the recipe seven years ago, Collins said. She knows of two families who had it before then.
The popularity of G-Shaft candy peaks during the holidays, Collins said.
“We have people call who used to live in that area, and they need the candy,” she said.
Dan’s has shipped G-Shaft candy as far as California and Alaska. The calls for the candy often come with fond memories, which, Collins said, she likes to hear.
“They call, and they start talking about what G-Shaft means in their lives,” she said. “It’s pretty neat. It’s amazing hearing what G-Shaft means to their families.”
Collins can identify with them, since she grew up with G-Shaft candy herself.
“I even eat a piece on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day because we went to Grandma’s, and she always had G-Shaft candy,” she said.
Besides tradition, G-Shaft candy also may have endured because of its somewhat mysterious flavor.
While Collins describes it as a peppermint candy, it does not quite taste like a peppermint and certainly doesn’t look like one.
“It’s kind of peppermint,” Collins said. “Some people say they get a root beer flavor from it. Some people say it’s got a licorice flavor. ... You smell it, and it’s strong. You kind of get the peppermint scent. But you just can’t tell what it is.”
Even a Herald-News article from Feb. 21, 1969, reports that G-Shaft is most popular during the Christmas season.
But Collins said most candy has Christmastime roots because you just couldn’t keep candy around during the warm weather months in the decades before air conditioning. It would melt, especially chocolate.
Dan’s, which has been in business since 1919 itself, closed during the summer in the early decades, Collins said.
Now, it makes G-Shaft candy year-round.
Holiday candy at the store includes a wide assortment of chocolate and cookies shaped like Christmas trees, ornaments, elves and more. There are dark chocolate gingerbread suckers and standing soldiers made of chocolate.
Carolyn Angers, of Joliet, who was in the shop last week, said she had just been to a large event where each place setting included a chocolate ornament from Dan’s. She got the idea to buy Christmas candy for a party she was organizing.
“I thought this would be a nice treat for them,” she said, while buying bags of a holiday assortment of hard candy. “I thought some of these you can’t find anymore.”