Brushing away the fog of memory, I distinctly remember a phase in my childhood—older elementary school, I’d guess—when my best friend and I agreed that Heath Bars were, without a doubt, the very best candy bar. We viewed it as a sophisticated, understated choice. None of the caramel goo of a Milky Way, the sporty ethos of Snickers, the kiddie colors of M&Ms. No, we appreciated the finer things in life: a ribbon of crisp butter toffee enrobed in milk chocolate. Those loyalties stick (kind of like toffee in your teeth, I suppose). When we chopped piles of candy for a photo shoot recently, the variety I couldn’t resist sneaking a bite of was, of course, my old buddy Heath:
This year the Heath brand celebrates its 100th anniversary. Though owned by Pennsylvania-based Hershey's today, Heath Bars actually are a Midwest product, still made in their hometown of Robinson, Illinois. Heath, it turns out, is a classic American success story. In 1914, schoolteacher L.S. Heath purchased a small downtown confectionary and soda shop for his sons.
The following year, he built a small factory for making ice cream, eventually added butter-churning and bottling equipment. But the boys’ passion was for candy, and in 1928, young Bayard Heath began tinkering with toffee. His final product, which he deemed to be “America’s Finest,” was Heath English Toffee.
The product was an instant hit, and word spread as traveling businessmen passing through Illinois began stopping at Heath Brothers Confectionary to buy packages of the popular toffee to take home as souvenirs. The Heath family eventually sold the confectionary, but continued selling the bars.
The brand went national in the 1940s, when the company scored a military contract to supply candy to the troops during World War II. Suddenly, people from across the country had tasted Heath.
From there, Heath added ice cream bars, precrumbled bits for whirling into products like Dairy Queen blizzards, and at one point, a softer version. (Horrors!) The company remained family-owned until 1989, and despite corporate acquisition, it is still a beloved icon in Robinson. In fact, you can visit the Heath Museum and Confectionary downtown.
Operated by the Crawford County Heritage Foundation, the tiny museum has photos and a handful of memorabilia, including one of the original copper pots where the Heath brothers stirred their English toffee. A juke box plays in the corner, and a retro-style soda fountain serves ice cream—you can bet that crumbled Heath bar is one of the most popular toppings.
Location and archival photos courtesy of the Crawford County Heritage Foundation.
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