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No Sugar-coating Success of Local Company

"Cliff Claven" visits Brockton factory for Made in America TV series

- by Jean Porrazzo, Enterprise staff writer

John Ratzenberger turned his character “Cliff Claven” into the king of trivia on the classic sitcom “Cheers.”

But the actor's visit to a candy company in Brockton Thursday morning wasn't trivial — he was here to honor men and women who work with their hands to make products that are the backbone of the American economy.

“The manual arts come before the fine arts,” Ratzenberger, 59, said. “Someone had to build the ceiling before Michelangelo could do his work.”

Ratzenberger, who portrayed the quintessential mailman and a know-it-all on “Cheers” in the 1980s, was in the city to showcase the 150-year-old candy manufacturer and its employees for a segment of Ratzenberger's “Made in America,” a series on the Travel Channel heading into its fourth season.

Bobby Hufault supervises sugar mix for making candy

Washburn Candy is America's oldest family-owned candy business. It was started by Francis B. Washburn as an offshoot of the Washburn Bakery in 1856.

Harry Gilson took over the company during the heart of the Depression in 1933; today, it is run by James and Doug Gilson.

Over the years, the company produced such famous confections as the Waleeco Coconut Bar and was one of the first companies to produce root-beer barrels.

Today, the company produces 2 million lollypops a day, and “it's still not enough,” Doug Gilson said.

“People say they can smell the peppermint and root beer on Main Street,” Gilson said.

But it's the company's colorful, hard ribbon candy that has become the cornerstone of Washburn Candy's success.

The company produces 7,000 to 8,000 boxes a day of the delicate confection that graces holiday tables across America and Canada.

Ratzenberger said he is concerned that society is raising a generation of children who do not go outside to play or learn to work with their hands.

“They're not tinkering with things,” he said. “If they don't tinker, there's no inventions.”

Every industry started with someone tinkering in a garage, Ratzenberger said.

John Ratzenberger of "Made In America" stands with boxes of ribbon candy at F.B. Washburn Candy"

Ratzenberger was born and grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., in a blue-collar family. He majored in English literature at Sacred Heart University and, before becoming an actor, he framed houses.

“I grew up in an area where people had a lot of skills,” he said.

“Made in America” visits about 40 manufacturing facilities throughout the country each year, and Ratzenberger encourages people to buy American-made products.

“It's not cheaper to buy a T-shirt made in China,” he said.

When products are produced in other countries, Americans foot the bill for all the workers who lost their jobs, he said.

“You have to pay the welfare of all the people you put out of work,” Ratzenberger said. “It costs you twice as much money.”

His 30-minute program airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on the Travel Channel.

- July 7, 2006 © 2006 The Brockton Enterprise