When the Christmas Crunch Comes to This Candymaking Clan, They Really Start Raising Cane

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

It looks like a scene from Lake Wobegon or perhaps out of George Bush's "kinder, gentler America." At the corner of Oregon and 12th streets on the south side of Oshkosh, Wis., stands a Tudor-style building called Oaks Candy Corner, chock full of hand-dipped chocolates, nuts and hard candies. Twinkly-eyed Bob Oaks strides in from the kitchen. "Oh, my goodness!" exclaims the candy man at the sight of 40 or more customers jammed into the cozy shop. "Merry Christmas!"

Oaks Candy Corner is as busy as Santa's workshop at this time of year since the Oakses are among the few remaining candymakers who still create candy canes by hand. Though hand-dipped chocolates are the store's main attractions, come November the Oakses also turn their talents to candy canes, cooking up 40,000
of the striped shepherds' crooks.

To deal with this yule logjam, the Oakses work every weekend in November and December. Up to 10 Oakses are busy caning each Saturday and Sunday. Bob and son Bill, 41, start the process by filling a copper caldron with 40 pounds of sugar, corn syrup and water. When the golden liquid bubbles up to 325°F, it is poured onto a water-cooled steel table, where a small portion is removed and dyed to form the colored candy for the stripes. The main batch is stirred and folded until it is cool and firm enough to be molded into a loaf. Meanwhile, Jamie helps knead the warm, colored candy that will make up the stripes. Bob presses the stripes onto the loaf, which is placed on a rolling belt that shapes it into a fat cylinder. The skinny canes are then pulled and cut from the cylinder. Kathy, 9, and Kristy, 12, slide the straight canes into cellophane tubes and pass them on to Bill, who bends one end of the still-warm cane into the characteristic crook.

At $3.50 a dozen, the Cadillac of candy canes comes in seven flavors—peppermint, wintergreen, anise, cinnamon, clove, lemon and cherry. The canes are about six inches long, with occasional exceptions. Two years ago the Oakses made a five-footer for Willard Scott but couldn't figure out how to ship the fragile confection to New York. They once made another five-footer for a local man to give to his girlfriend, whose name was Candy Cane.

The mighty Oaks clan has been satisfying sweet tooths since 1890. These days Charlotte, 65, does the books. Bob, her husband of 46 years, oversees the operation. He tests candy by feel, rather than taste, which helps explain the fact that he's a trim 165 lbs.

Since the Oakses' candy canes are not available by mail order (unlike their chocolates), loyal customers make yuletide pilgrimages to Oshkosh to stock up. "I remember lying under the tree as a kid and licking 'em!" says Patricia Ignat, who, along with her husband, Mike, drove seven hours from Houghton Lake, Mich., last month to visit her 87-year-old mother—and Oaks Candy Corner.

The Oakses don't make much money from their seasonal sideline, so why do they bother with all that extra work? "Because we've always done it," says Bob Oaks simply. Besides, you know what they say: No pain; no cane.

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