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WYSO is traveling the Miami Valley to find out how people mark the big moments in life. We’ll be covering the origins and histories of holidays, as well as the unique ways they’re celebrated in our region. If there’s a celebration you think we should cover, please let us know!

Marie’s Candies: The Willy Wonka of West Liberty, Ohio

Rebecca Craig holds a seven-pound heart-shaped box of chocolates at Marie's Candies.
J. Reynolds
Rebecca Craig holds a seven-pound heart-shaped box of chocolates at Marie's Candies.

The history of Marie’s Candies is almost as rich as the chocolate they make—a story that might make Willy Wonka a little jealous.

It’s not the story of a single chocolatier. It’s the story of how a whole community came together to help a family in need.

Rebecca Craig says it all started when her grandfather, Winfred, got sick in 1941.

“Winfred was a farmer and got polio. He was in an iron lung for a while, and then for the rest of his life, he was in a wheelchair so he couldn't farm anymore,” she said.

People in and around the Village of West Liberty started lending a hand, which in turn led to Winfred’s wife, Marie, creating confections in their kitchen to thank their neighbors.

“People would do things like give her rides to the hospital to see Winfred,” Craig said. “One of the gifts that the community gave them was a cow so that they would have milk for their kids. So, she was making the candy already, which turned into a way of living for them and their three boys.”

Courtesy of Marie's Candies
Marie King and her husband, Winfred.

As luck would have it, a person just up the road in Urbana had a peppermint chew business that they wanted to sell, and that’s how Marie got her first candy machines.

Some 80 years later, two of her grandchildren are running the business, making dozens of different confections that are sold and shipped pretty much everywhere. They have more than 30 employees, and many of those employees grew up on Marie’s Candies.

Jane Ludlow is one example. She’s a retired nurse who now makes candy for Marie's.

“I’ve come here as a customer for 40 years,” Ludlow said, “and it sounded fun!”

One of Ludlow’s jobs is running a machine that portions cream for chocolate-covered cherries. A small team of candy makers will put the cherries in the cream, and then each cream-covered cherry will get two coats of chocolate.

It’s one of the more labor-intensive confections, but candy maker Yvonne Humphrey says it’s fun work.

“You know when you make it that many people smile and enjoy themselves,” Humphrey said. “And they’re like, ‘What? Do you work at Marie's? Where’s my samples?’”

J. Reynolds
A stained glass window at Marie's Candies.

On the sales floor, they offer samples to customers like Teresa Ward, who came in to stock up for the holiday.

“I’m shopping for Valentines for my grandchildren, so I got 12 of everything,” Ward said with a laugh. “They’ve got chocolate-covered Oreos, milk chocolate-covered graham crackers, and some hearts. And you always have to check out the seconds. So, I got me a bag of seconds.”

Ward pointed to a shelf and explained that “seconds” are candies not deemed perfect enough in appearance to sell at the regular price, so they’re surprisingly affordable.

“You got to check out the seconds,” she said. “The women always check out the clearance and the seconds.”

And it’s not just the ladies that love Marie’s. Kim Bourne remembers the first time he tried their chocolate.

“The first time I experienced it, a lady gave them out at Christmas,” he said. “Once she gave me that box, I was hooked."

Over a decade later, Bourne is buying some for his wife for Valentine’s Day.

Marie’s Candies are unique, and their building is, too. It’s an old train depot with railroad crossing signs, conductors’ hats, and an old stationary telephone.

As Rebecca Craig explains, the train depot didn’t always sit on the company’s lot:

“My parents, Jay and Cathy, the second-generation owners of Marie's Candies, fell in love with this old train depot. And it sat out by the railroad tracks on the west side of town. So they'd ride their bikes past it, and it was in terrible shape." Craig said, "And they just wanted something done with the building. So, they bought it and moved it to our property. It was quite a process that day that they were moving the train depot. It was like a big parade; everyone was out in town.”

Courtesy of Marie's Candies
Kathy and Jay King were the second generation to run this family business.

In old black and white photos, you can see people standing on the main drag watching as a truck tows the train station through town, and people in West Liberty say you couldn’t find any film at the drug store or grocery that day because everyone wanted a photo of the depot rolling through town.

Rebecca says she and her brother Shannon King—the third generation to own Marie’s—try to give back to those people who supported their grandmother so many years ago.

“As a business, we're in a position where we can give back to the community and help with the schools or help with benefits that help families in need and different things like that,” she said. “ So, it's kind of nice to turn the table and give back after all West Liberty's help for Marie's.”

And this time of year, there’s a lot of work ahead for the candy makers at Marie’s. As soon as they finish selling Valentine’s Day candy, they have to start working on 7,000 chocolate Easter Bunnies.

J. Reynolds

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