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Local cousins’ firm is nation’s top producer of ribbon candy

- by John Delery, The Patriot Ledger

Clamorous machines that produce 4,000 pounds of colorful Christmas confections every workday from March through November at Brockton’s F.B. Washburn Candy Corp. are now mostly mute.

The company, 145 years old and counting, has wrapped up another season in the ribbon candy business.

Copper cookers that had been switched off almost two hours earlier were letting off steam at 11 a.m. yesterday - relaxing, sort of, after spending the past eight months feverishly creating more than 500,000 pounds of the delicate seasonal sweets, 400 pounds an hour, 10 hours a day, four days a week.

Only a few unwanted, unwrapped boxes of ribbon candy were left behind at this modernized monument to old-time candy making. The factory’s 60,000 square feet of storage space was empty space yesterday.

Jim and Doug Gilson of FB Washburn Candy Corporation“If you haven’t sold your Christmas candy by now, you’re in trouble,” said Jim Gilson of Hingham, who owns the company with his first cousin, Douglas Gilson of Sharon.

“It takes a long time to distribute it through stores.”

Washburn Candy has been making ribbon good enough to eat for more than 50 years, since shortly after Harry Gilson, Jim and Doug’s grandfather, left his job at Emerson Candy in New York, moved from Brooklyn to Brockton in 1933, and bought the machinery and the company from its original owners, who were having trouble paying the mortgage because of the Depression.

“You know, I couldn’t tell you why he decided to start manufacturing ribbon candy,” Jim Gilson said from behind the desk in the office he shares with his cousin.

He does know its significance to the company.

“It’s very important to us, because it distinguishes us from everybody else,” said Gilson, who estimated that ribbon candy accounts for 15 percent of all yearly sales. “It’s nice to have a niche product.”

Each year Washburn Candy, the nation’s major manufacturer of ribbon candy, ships thousands and thousands and thousands of boxes of its sugary, specialty treat to supermarkets and discount department stores across North America under the name Sevigny, the major competitor from Hanover the company bought 15 years ago.

One Gilson or another has been running Washburn Candy for 68 years. Jim, who has a food science degree, answers when somebody wants to speak to the president, and Douglas, who went to business school, answers when somebody needs to speak to the treasurer, but their titles do not impress either candy man, each of whom succeeded his father in the business in 1974.

“This is not a large corporation,” Jim Gilson said. “Titles don’t matter much around here.”

He genially declined to reveal how much hard cash being in the hard candy business generates annually.

“Let’s just say we’re doing OK,” he said, smiling broadly enough to expose more than just his sweet tooth.

The width of his grin suggests producing lots of drops and lollipops - Washburn Candy manufactures 1.5 million lollipops alone every day - has made him professionally happy and financially secure.

Apparently, the Gilson boys always heard the calling to candy. Jim Gilson said they always knew a child’s dream job - foreman of a candy factory - would be their adult occupation.

“It’s in our blood, I guess,” he said.

Sounds like one sweet deal.

- November 29, 2001, © 2001 The Patriot Ledger