John Bird Burnham (1869-1939) visited the Adirondacks for the first time as a guest of the Rev. George DuBois family. It was during one of these visits to the family’s camp in St. Huberts that he fell in love with the Reverend’s daughter Henrietta. They were married by her father in the family chapel in 1891. That year, John Burnham joined the staff of Field and Stream, writing articles about game protection.
Burnham is best remembered as an ardent conservationist. In 1898, he purchased a home in Willsboro, New York, which he operated as the Highlands Game Preserve. He served as a member of the three-man commission that codified the state’s fish and games laws, and as the first President of the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, Burnham was instrumental in the effort to ban hunting deer with dogs in the Adirondack Park. His friends and colleagues included Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. He is less well known for his career as an Essex, N. Y. candy maker.
Henrietta Brunham wanted to give her husband a wedding gift. Their son Koert recalled that “Mother wanted to give him a present and so she invented this maple candy that was…never sugary, it was always creamy.” After selling several hundred dollars worth of the candy, she presented John with the profits.
The recipe was deceptively simple: a cup of very heavy cream and two cups of maple syrup were boiled without stirring until the mixture formed a soft ball when dropped in cold water. After it cooled a bit, workers added “pure Burnett’s vanilla and whup the deuce out of it” on long galvanized tables lined with wax paper.
By 1904, John Burnham “had worked out more of a production method and they had six or eight women working there and one man” in an old brick schoolhouse in Essex. The candy mixture was worked by hand into small pieces with two spoons. They had to work quickly, while the mixture was at exactly the right temperature. According to Koert, “both Dad and Mother had a horror of impurities, and so they used all their silver spoons, their really good ones, and every one of our spoons was all worn out!”
The maple syrup was collected from several sugarbushes owned by the Dubois and Burnham families, and sometimes purchased from others in Essex County. If the small factory ran low on maple syrup, workers used maple sugar to create the syrup needed to manufacture the candy. The Burnham’s fear of impurities was such that “they thought only three kinds of sugar were any good, that was beech sugar, cane sugar, or maple sugar. And they hated the idea of glucose, or dextrose, or any of the other types of things.” John Burnham Adirondack Mountain Creams were made with “products that were pure, from the heart of the Adirondacks.”
Each piece was topped with half a pecan and individually wrapped. Henrietta used a vegetable dye to color raffia green. Once the candies were wrapped, they were placed in raffia lined birch bark boxes. Each box was made by one of Burnham’s male employees, using bark stripped from local trees used for firewood or other purposes. The boxes were designed in half-pound, one-pound, and two-pound sizes. The bark was cut to size and shaped so that the bark was folded to form the bottom, sides, and top of the box. Then, “ a great big gob of red sealing wax was put on top of a white paper seal and you’d have to break the sealing wax in order to open the box of candy.”
Koert Burnham remembered that his parents’ candy was, for a time, the most expensive in America. In spite of its costly price tag, there was never a shortage of customers: “I know there were orders and re-orders, and the volume was really more than eight or ten people could handle, [but] they didn’t want to make it common. And they didn’t want to expand more.” Orders were shipped by express up and down the east coast, and shipped by rail to the west coast.
The Burnham candy business was flourishing in the pre-World War I years, but “eventually, Dad got more or less tired of it because he’s never liked to stick with any one thing too long.” John Burnham sold the business at a sizeable profit and turned his attention to his conservation work and constructing the cabins of the Crater Club.
You can hear Koert Burnham talk about his parents’ candy in “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions” on exhibit at the Adirondack Museum through October 18.