By Jim Froemming
The Morris Candy Kitchen, a confectionery and ice cream parlor at 416 Atlantic Avenue in Morris, closed in the summer of 1962 after a 30-year run at that location. My grandfather, Thomas Kokovikas, Sr. was its proprietor.
As a nineteen-year old my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island in 1910 from Sella, Greece, a rural village in the northern part of the Peloponnese peninsula. After working in the textile mills in Lynn, Massachusetts, and in restaurants in Boston, as a dishwasher, and in St. Louis, as a fry cook, he came to Minnesota in the spring of 1912 to work in the railroad yards in St. Louis Park. After war broke out between Greece and Bulgaria in the summer of 1913, his Norwegian foreman, a kind man, warned ‘Tom’ that the Bulgarian workers might hurt him and suggested he leave and go to where there were other Greeks working, the Great Northern Railway railroad yards in Willmar.
While still holding down his job at the railroad yards during the years of 1915 to 1918, my grandfather learned the candy making trade on the weekends from a fellow Greek, Theodore Curtis, who owned the Boston Candy Kitchen confectionery in Willmar. Mr. Curtis also had learned the candy making trade from a fellow Greek who he had worked for. The first Greeks to America set up confectioneries in the cities of New York, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. This was not a trade they learned or brought from Greece, it was a niche that they created after starting off as street peddlers and learning of America’s sweet tooth. Once these large cities became saturated with confectioneries their workers after saving enough money and learning the trade branched out to all corners of America, particularly to the rural towns of the Midwest to open their own stores.
For those who might be interested in learning more about the Greek phenomenon of ownership of confectioneries, a wonderful tribute is Ann Flesor-Beck’s PhD dissertation in 2014 at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign, Greek Immigration to, and Settlement in, Central Illinois 1880-1930. On pages 270 and 271, she states: “However it was spelled, Kandy (or Candy) Kitchen was by far the most popular name for a Greek confectionery, …” and “… across central Illinois nearly every town of any size had at least one or more Greek confectionery and soda fountain.”
My siblings and I do not know why our grandfather chose Morris to start his own confectionery, but we presume it had something to do with the Great Northern Railway’s route from Willmar to Morris, some assistance or encouragement from Ted Curtis, and the small-town opportunity that existed there. In any case in March 1919, my grandfather and another Greek, James Costatos, opened the Morris Candy Kitchen on 512 Atlantic Avenue. In the summer of 1920, my grandmother (Esther Eul), a young local German-Irish girl, came into the store collecting for the fuel bill for her father’s Standard Oil business, and after learning of a job opening decided to take a job there as a waitress.
In December 1922 a fire destroyed the store completely. In the following months my grandfather decided to rebuild at the same location and took over full proprietorship of the new store. Around that same time, he proposed to my grandmother, Esther Eul, and they were married on April 25, 1923. The Grand Opening for the new store, called the Ideal Confectionery, was on July 21, 1923. The new name never really stuck, patrons still always continued to refer to it as the Candy Kitchen.
An excerpt from an article in the March 7, 1924 issue of the Morris Tribune: “… Of these 2,000 pounds (of ‘candy’) made in December, it is very interesting to learn that 700 pounds were peanut brittle for which this establishment is becoming famous. People have been heard to say it was the best peanut brittle that they every had eaten and the run on it at times during a sale has been tremendous. … In the basement room where the candy is made, everything is done to maintain it in the best condition possible. There is the regulation candy stove and several large burnished copper kettles in which the candy ingredients are mixed and heated. A heat gauge is an important item in the modern candy shop. On strong tables are the marble slabs where the candy is cooled after a certain length of time over the stove. …”
The picture above is from its Grand Opening in 1923. The inside of that store is very different from the memories we have of our grandpa’s store on 416 Atlantic Avenue (the one we grew up with), except for its pressed-tin ceiling, which was popular for stores then, and the dark wooden booths.
Unfortunately, those were tough financial times in America and Morris as well, and the store on 512 Atlantic closed in July 1925. After tries with other confectioneries in Graceville, Donnelly and Chokio, my grandfather returned to Morris in 1931 and set up shop selling home-made candies in the front part of the Level Market, a grocery store at that time on 416 Atlantic Avenue. The store was in the old Exchange Hotel Building that was built in the early 1880’s. In 1938 my grandfather purchased the building and started advertising his business as the Morris Candy Kitchen. My grandmother became the store’s business manager.
A photo from circa 1940. Our mother, Elaine Kokovikas Froemming (on left side) is with a friend outside the store. On far left-side of the photo you can see the building at 501 Atlantic, which still exists today. It housed Max’s Bakery then, and now is home to the Common Cup Coffeehouse.
A photo of our grandmother, uncle (Thomas Kokovikas, Jr), grandfather, and mother. Circa 1943.
In November of 2017 just before the Thanksgiving holiday my siblings and I decided to place a ½ page ad in the Stevens County Times with the heading “Wanted: Memories of the Morris Candy Kitchen.” We received four responses from readers – 3 more than we had ever hoped for since we knew it was pretty much a long shot with the store closing 55 years ago. The excitement and warm heart remembrance shown in their responses were truly touching. I personally met with two of them, talked at length to a third on the telephone and received a wonderful letter from a fourth.
Beverly, now 87, as a child lived in an upstairs apartment in a building near or next to the Candy Kitchen. She remembered coming into the store as a kid in the early ‘40s and ordering what she remembered as a “gob” – what she referred to as a Christmas tree on a stick, i.e. ice cream dipped in chocolate. She remembered you could also get 3 scoops of ice cream for a nickel and said: “that candy was something out of this world!”
Ellen, now 90, worked as a waitress in the Candy Kitchen when she was a teenager from about 1942 to 1946. One of her jobs was to cook the hamburgers. Her older sister also worked there in the years before. Of my grandpa she said: “he treated me really well and was very good to me” and “he watched over me.” She remembered her time there like it was yesterday. It was an extremely touching moment to meet someone that worked for and knew my grandpa so well.
I visited on the telephone with Karen, now 67, who as a child lived above the store from 1958 to about 1961. Her mom was a cook at the Del Monico Cafe at 617 Atlantic Avenue, which at one time had been owned by John Georgis (the only other Greek in Morris) who was married to my grandmother’s sister, Marcella. Karen said her favorite sweet was a “Buffalo Sundae” served in a heavy glass dish with a stem – 2 scoops of ice cream with chocolate, marshmallows and nuts on top. She also liked the ribbon candy he made during Christmas.
Patty, now 75, wrote a very touching letter to my siblings and me: “I was in the ‘Candy Kitchen’ many times (in the 50’s). Those ‘5’ cent mint patties and ‘maple nut’ candies were so good. And at the Christmas Holidays he made the ‘original’ rolled ribbon candies. He was such a gentle man. He could be a ‘grandpa’ almost to many of my family. And I’m sure others. I would wash & clean the front windows & he gave me a dollar & a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. To this day it was the best ice cream, so rich and creamy.”
My siblings, Rob, Kathy and Patty and I lived in Alexandria until 1960 when our family moved to a city on the Iron Range. We only got to visit the store a couple of times after the move and before its closing in 1962. At the time we were still in our pre-teen years.
Rob and Kathy have the best recollection of the layout of the store (see below). This is great because we do not have a photograph of the inside of the store. Maybe from these memories we can someday have an artist make a sketch to be given as a keepsake to our family’s next generation.
We still have our grandfather’s pendulum wall clock from the store.
We also still have one of the store calendars from the year the store closed in 1962.
One thing that will always remind me of my grandpa’s store is when I see a jade-ite green colored malted milk mixer from that era. We don’t have one ourselves, but my sister’s husband has one from his dad’s pharmacy.
My brother Rob remembers the guys from Esser’s next door coming in for a beer on lunch break, sitting on the stools at the counter and shaking dice in a leather cup for fun.
My siblings remember having fun getting rides from Grandpa on the lift blade of the silver-colored dolly after unloading the cases of beer he brought in from the back room. I remember that he would let me have the empty cigar boxes and the soda and beer bottle caps. Funny what a 6-year old finds fun, but I would make the cigar boxes into a tank and pretend the bottle caps of the various brands were my soldiers of different “armies” – the Coca Cola bottle caps against North Star beer bottle caps. I remember my favorite candy were these cherry flavored soft candies.
My two sisters’ ice cream memories at the store:
Patty: “I was probably around 4 years old at the time and I was with my older sister, Kathy. Older by a whole year and three months. I followed her everywhere. And did everything she did. Coming into the Candy Kitchen I crawled up to sit at the counter next to Kathy. Grandpa would always ask us what milkshakes we wanted. Kathy would always ask for a shake. And I would always say, “Me too.” Grandpa would tease me and say that he had a lot of different flavors, but sadly no “me, too,” I must have been struggling with pronunciation. When asked again, I’d stubbornly hold firm to my “me too” answer and Grandpa would tease me some more – all the while laughing and of course, making my shake. “
Kathy: “Sitting at the counter with Patty, having ice cream, a chocolate malt is my memory, and spinning on the stools. Remembering that Grandma would tell Grandpa, ‘stop giving the kiddies all that ice cream! They’re going to get sick!’ Grandpa was a very kind and nice man, who I loved dearly.”
My grandparents would come on Mondays to Alexandria to visit when the store in Morris was closed. My sibling, Kathy, remembers, “Grandpa and Grandma would drive over to Alexandria on Mondays and always bring bakery goods, like glazed or raised donuts or Bismarck’s.”
An excerpt from an article in the June 15, 1962 issue of the Morris Tribune: “Tom Kokovikas Retires – His decision to retire from business did not come from his advancing years, nor from a desire to “take it easy”. It is the result of his wife’s ill health. Mrs. Kokovikas was taken ill in January and presently is in Alexandria where the couple’s son, Tom Jr. lives. As soon as he has closed out his business here Mr. Kokovikas will go to Alexandria and the couple will make their home there. … One of the city’s oldest businessman, in the number of years in business and in age is retiring. He is Tom Kokovikas, who admits to attaining his 71st birthday in April and who first started in business in Morris more than 40 years ago. Mr. Kokovikas has closed up his well-known candy kitchen and ice cream and refreshment stand. He has sold the building to Arnold Esser who expects to raze the structure. The structure is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Morris, being about 80 years old.“
Anyone who ever visited the store would remember the iconic image of my grandpa as the kind and generous man behind the counter, who always wore a white shirt and tie, sleeves rolled-up, and had a cigar by his side.
In the summer of 1962 when the store closed, I rode with my grandpa from Alexandria to Morris, perhaps his last visit to the store himself. At the time I wondered why Grandpa was so quiet on the trip back to Alex. It was only years later that I realized just how much sadness he must have had leaving behind the store he loved so much.
Shortly after the closing of the store in 1962 the building was sold to Arnold Esser, who had a Pontiac dealership on the south side of the store. The building was razed soon after to make room for an expansion of his dealership. If only the building could have been included in some of the old buildings that still stand today in Morris, but time marches on.
Aphrodite Matsakis in her book Growing up Greek in St. Louis (2002) had a statement I think all of us can relate to at some point in our lives as we age. “So often we forget that our parents and grandparents are more than our relatives, they are people who had dreams and hopes apart from taking care of us.” My brother Rob learned this much earlier than me and has done some wonderful summaries of our ancestry, particularly a biography of our Grandpa he did eighteen years ago. I thank him for giving me such a good foundation to start my journey on learning more about our Grandpa.
A hearty thank you from the Stevens County History Museum staff to Jim Froemming for researching, writing, and sharing this article with all of us!