Jill and Warren Schimpff (above) could have been a comedy duo. Instead the husband and wife—married for 50 years—are the George Burns and Gracie Allen of candymaking.
They are also the current proprietors of Schimpff’s Confectionery (347 Spring Street, Jeffersonville, IN, 812-283-8367, schimpffs.com). Warren’s great-grandfather opened the shop in 1891. Several additions later, it remains a fixture on Jeffersonville’s main drag. It is also the self-proclaimed “oldest, continuously operated, family-owned candy business in the United States.”
Building a business around the American sweet tooth is always a good bet. In the Schimpff’s case, the confection that has sustained them through thick and thin is the simple cinnamon red hot. “We’ve been making them for 126 years,” Jill tells us when we arrive for a candymaking demonstration. “They’re the ones that have carried through the longest.”
It’s best to call ahead to check on tour availability, but the Schimpffs clearly love what they do—and love an audience. In fact, the couple annexed the building next door so that they could add a demonstration Candy Kitchen. They still make red hots the old-fashioned way. In a practiced routine, Jill dons a headset microphone to keep up a running banter with observers. Warren slips on heavy gloves and, completely deadpan, does the work.
He begins by heating sugar, corn syrup, water, and red coloring in turn-of-the-century copper kettles over an 85-year-old cast iron stove. When the mixture reaches 320°F, Warren lifts the kettle and spreads the hot liquid on a water-cooled table that is as old as the shop itself. He stirs in cinnamon oil and lifts and folds the mixture as it cools and thickens into a big, red blob.
With big scissors, Warren cuts off manageable portions and feeds them into a traditional drop roll machine that flattens the blob into a sheet of red hots. Candymakers once had to crank the machine by hand. But the Schimpffs made a concession to the 20th century by adding a small motor. (It’s still running in the 21st.) The final step in the process is the most dramatic. Warren lifts a cooled sheet and then drops it back onto the work surface. As the sheet breaks apart into 100 glistening hard candies, he can’t help but break into a grin.
Schimpff’s offers other flavors of hard candies, including sour lemon drops, anise drops, and local favorite fish-shaped drops in assorted flavors. They also make an assortment of chocolates, peanut and cashew brittles, and Modjeskas, another local specialty. The caramel-covered marshmallows are named for a famous touring actress who performed in Louisville in the late 19th century.
But cinnamon red hots remain the shop’s mainstay. The Schimpffs even blow some of the cinnamon exhaust from the candymaking process out onto the sidewalk to entice passersby inside for a true taste of tradition.