Originally Published October 21, 2011 at MLive: http://www.mlive.com/living/jackson/index.ssf/2011/10/peek_through_time_candyman_joh.html
On a Halloween night many years ago, a group of Jackson youngsters making the rounds for tricks or treats excitedly rang the bell at 1313 W. Washington Ave., the home of John O. Gilbert, a man who made candy for a living.
Gilbert, owner of Gilbert Chocolate Co., invited the children in and played several selections for them on his beloved violin. When he was done, he said, “That is all, children. Good night.”
The bewildered kids thought they’d been tricked instead of treated, but before they could leave, Gilbert laughed and brought out large portions of his candy, which he handed out liberally.
That’s a story Gilbert’s friends told upon his death 51 years ago Sunday. It’s appropriate for this time of year, with Halloween just little more than a week away, and a good example of the humor of one of Jackson’s first self-made millionaires.
“He was quite a guy and a very interesting gentleman,” said Roger Gilbert, 77, of Jackson, Gilbert’s last living grandchild.
John O. Gilbert, known by his friends as “J.O.,” was born Feb. 28, 1863, in Pennsylvania, the second oldest of the 13 children of John J. Gilbert and Phoebe (Pipes) Gilbert, both of English ancestry.
His first job was cutting timber with his father, a very successful sawmill operator who also was wounded twice while fighting for the Union in the Civil War. At 22, Gilbert left the family business and took up farming in Washington County, Pa. for five years.
After that, he ended up in Findlay, Ohio, where he worked in a planing mill for two years and then did odd jobs, which included driving a bakery wagon. His candy-making career began in 1893, when he bought a bakery in Findlay that he ran for five years.
Gilbert and his wife, Mary, then arrived in Jackson in 1900 and in April 1901 opened a retail candy store at 104 W. Main St. that also featured bakery items, ice cream and a lunch counter.
“Grandpa and grandma were a wonderful team,” Roger Gilbert said. “They were very hard-working people.”
It showed in their success.
In 1904, Gilbert acquired a coveted retail spot in the Otsego Hotel, at Main and Francis streets.
In 1913, he replaced his first chocolate factory at Pearl and S. Mechanic streets with a modern two-story factory at 253 W. Cortland St. that used purified filtered, dust-proof air.
In 1917, he closed his two retail stores and opened a store and restaurant at 134 W. Michigan Ave. that included a cafeteria that served lunch and dinner.
“The ice cream was made in the basement, and there was a German baker on the third floor,” Roger Gilbert said.
The store’s theater-like marquee quickly became a Jackson landmark and Gilbert’s became a popular eating and meeting place.
“Grandpa had a very strict sense of quality,” Roger Gilbert said. “He was very quality-oriented in his business.”
In his spare time, Gilbert loved watching boxing and was often in front of the television on Friday nights watching the fights.
“He was never a boxer himself, but he loved the competitive nature of the sport,” Roger Gilbert said. “He was pretty competitive.”
Music, including playing the violin and the harmonica, also were his passions.
Gilbert, who lived a healthy lifestyle and exercised regularly, retired from an active role in his company in 1949 at age 86. Son Russell took over as president and general manager of the company and its 250 employees.
A big change in the company’s direction came in 1955 when Gilbert purchased the Gardner Steak House at 2323 Clinton Road, now Shirley Drive and renamed it Gilbert’s Steak House.
The store at 134 W. Michigan Avenue was closed in March 1957 and sold to National Bank of Jackson, which used it as a temporary location while a new main office was built at 245 W. Michigan Ave.
Gilbert died at age 97 on Oct. 23, 1960, a Sunday, in Foote Hospital, now Allegiance Health. Mary had died in 1938 and he’d lost both of his children, Russell, who died just months before he did, and daughter Hazel.
The Gilbert family sold the steakhouse to Arthur W. Poole, president of Western Stamping Co., and William R. Cones in 1961.
The Cortland Street chocolate factory was demolished in the early 1960s to create a city parking lot after the family sold the business to Albert F. and Juanita Knapp, operators of Gramer Candy Co., 809 E. North St.
However, 110 years after he first set up shop, Gilbert’s recipes and quality techniques continue to thrive today in a factory on Ackerson Lake Drive and a retail store in Jackson Crossing.
Candy maker John O. Gilbert purchased his flavorings from Hershey Chocolate Corp. in Pennsylvania, marketed as “The Chocolate of Connoisseurs.” A special code blend called J.O.G. Special Vanilla was developed by Hershey for a dark chocolate produced exclusively by Gilbert’s.
Ingredients for Gilbert’s Chocolates were not always measured by scales and cups. They were often mixed to taste rather than to a formula.
During World War II, the U.S. government placed orders for about 300,000 pounds of Gilbert’s Chocolates that were shipped throughout the world to members of the Army, Navy and Marines. The chocolates, called “Caballeros,” were in ornamental metal boxes that looked like treasure chests.
The Gilberts’ home at 1313 W. Washington Ave. was built in 1922 for about $100,000 and was an exact replica of a home he saw and fell in love with in Los Angeles, a place he loved to visit.
At the time of his death in 1960, Gilbert’s Panamas, cherry cordials and chocolate-covered peppermints were enjoyed by millions of Americans.
In 1961, after buying the company from the Gilbert family, Albert F. and Juanita Knapp started construction on a $150,000 factory at 3509 Wayland Drive in the Scheele Industrial Park. The 13,500-square-foot facility featured air conditioning, which kept the plant at 68 degrees throughout the year and kept the humidity at less than 50 percent. Production lasted only a few years and abruptly halted in December 1964. The building was purchased in 1965 by Utility & Industrial Supply Co., a company founded in Jackson in 1935 by Howard L. Gentry Sr. at 921 E. Michigan Ave.
In June 1962, Gilbert’s Chocolates got a newly designed box bearing a new Gilbert’s crest. Reports indicated that the new colorful packages resulted in greater impulse sales than expected. The design was created by Hollerith-Eaton Inc., 2390 Wildwood Road, which also printed the new box wrappers. The boxes were made by Jackson Paper Box Co., 1316 Wildwood Ave.
When the Knapps relinquished the Gilbert line of chocolates in 1964, it was taken over by two former employees, Helga Austin and Mildred Collett. The duo each invested $500 to start the H&M Candy Cottage at 237 Ackerson Lake Drive. They marketed candy bars to local businesses with the management of Austin’s husband, Jim.
Collett sold her share to the Austins in 1975, but continued to hand-dip chocolates as she had for the past 40 years.
The Austins opened a retail store at 1214 W. Michigan Ave. in 1990 before moving it to Jackson Crossing in 1991.
Wayne Harbaugh of Somerset Center bought the company from the Austins in 1999 and sold it to the Blakemore family, which still runs the business today, in 2003.