HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- A visit to the site of abolitionist John Brown's famous raid is a collision of historic significance and natural beauty. The hill town of Harpers Ferry is nestled where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet and the Appalachian Trail sign informs that you are 1,165 miles from Maine and 1,013 from Georgia.
There's a lot to take in outdoors, but when it's a sweltering 97 degrees, a cool refuge is True Treats, a shop that promises authentic candies dating back to the 1600s and air-conditioning. The company attached to the rear of the shop is called Cool Confectionaries. Sweet!
The walk-up at 180 High St. features two rooms with tables covered in plastic-wrapped candy, most with explanatory labels and scrolls recounting the sweets' origins and ingredients. I was drawn to a sampler of Historic Candy of the 1800s ($13.97), because it was the most comprehensive and portable, and the label placed it as covering the Civil War century.
The label reads: "The 1800s were an amazing time for sweets. Enslaved people produced the sugar, abolitionists boycotted it, and Civil War soldiers ate it in their rations. While the first commercial candy appeared in 1806, sugar only shifted from being medicinal to being fun in the 1880s."
One piece in the group, sugar and corn syrup shaped into a toy squirrel, falls into an earlier category, according to a scroll that comes with the candy. "Clear toy candy arrived in the 1700s with German immigrants ... popular in the late 1800s when people hung them from Christmas trees." Of the tough twig that is licorice root, there's a reminder that it arrived here through the slave trade. It was used as a spice and "was said to ease stomach pain and serve as a laxative."
Lemon Gibralters, a soap-shaped bar that comes in a paper pouch, are from Ye Olde Pepper Companie Ltd. of Salem, Mass., founded in 1806 and declaring as America's oldest candy-making company. Ingredients are sugar, water, cream of tartar, cornstarch and oil of lemon, for a pleasant, not-too-sweet, not-too-lemony taste that melts in your mouth.
There also are Necco wafers, which were developed in 1847 by a pharmacist and eaten by Union soldiers, according to the scroll, plus taffy and treats featuring ginger or molasses.
Susan Benjamin, who lives in nearby Shepherdstown, W.Va., is the owner of the three-year-old company and shop. She was looking to follow a new course after 25 years in the "intense world of communications," when she consulted on a Harpers Ferry business and suggested that the shop ditch modern sweets in favor of historic candy. When the shop went in another direction, she continued to research the subject.
"What I found, amazingly, was there really weren't any places that presented candy that way, other than retro candies in museum and specialty shops," she said. "But there was nothing that articulated the connection between the candy and our culture, the Industrial Revolution, the slave trade. It wasn't there."
Today if you walk into True Treats, Ms. Benjamin or general manager Jarad Glorfield will be happy to share their knowledge about their sweets. Some are made specifically for Cool Confectionaries and can be purchased at coolconfectionaries.com and the True Treats shop, and others can be traced to their original source, such as Kentucky Bourbon Balls or Native America candy from South Dakota.
The website features cookbooks and categories such as "Originals" and "Botanicals" and a timeline that reaches through the mid-1900s. All products come with histories; for example, among the earliest traced treats are Biscuits Roses de Reims from France [$1.97 for three, $11.97 for 21], which date to 1691.
"One of the best-selling things we get commercially," Ms. Benjamin said. "It's the Chicken Bones [a butterscotch shell filled with peanut butter and rolled in coconut, $9.95 for 6 ounces] from the late 1800s from Canada. Candy Cigarettes [$3.21 for three packs] sell well, too. Other than that, it's a toss-up" as to what might catch the eye of a consumer.
Within the confines of Harpers Ferry, the 1800s and the explanations for each treat takes on added meaning while standing in a place that tries to recapture that fateful moment in American history. It was two years before the start of the war, in 1859, when John Brown led a doomed raid to capture the national armory, with hopes of sparking an uprising that would lead to the end of slavery.
You may stop into True Treats for something sweet and a rush of cool air, but you leave with another history lesson from Harpers Ferry.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.