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Wearing her Christmas hat, Mary Ellen Dutton works the ribbon candy line with an 1886 crimper at Kellerhaus in Weirs Beach. (PAULA TRACY/UNION LEADER)

Laconia shop's ribbon candy a sweet holiday tradition for more than a century

LACONIA - The smell of peppermint was enough to sting your eyes in the basement of the Kellerhaus in Weirs Beach as a crew of three worked to preserve a Christmas tradition - making ribbon candy.

Kellerhaus, a small chocolate and ice cream shop, has been making this holiday treat for more than 100 years and attracts customers from as far away as Europe.

The temperature in the copper kettle of sugar and water reaches 300 degrees before Dave Dutton pours the 30 pounds of the confection onto a heated table. Dutton left the corporate life as a chief financial officer and, with his wife, Mary Ellen, a nurse, switched careers to buy the candy and ice cream shop he recalled visiting at Lake Winnipesaukee as a child.

The Duttons make more than 100 types of candy, but said many New Englanders wouldn't consider it Christmas without ribbon candy.

"It's not like it's the most delectable thing on earth," Dave Dutton said of the candy, which can have flavors of vanilla, spearmint, clove, licorice, wintergreen, cinnamon, peppermint, molasses or peanut butter.

Production is dictated by the weather. When temperatures and humidity drop, the Duttons call on Kim Olszak. She began working the circa-1886 crimper at age 14; this is her 23rd year making the candy.

On Thursday, Olszak used gloves to protect her from the hot candy as she kneaded it, while Mary Ellen Dutton took a large ball of it and added food coloring.

Dave Dutton lifted the 30 pounds of clear peppermint onto a hook. As he kneaded, it became opaque. He then laid the hot mass out on another hot table and added three long strips of the red-colored candy evenly onto the slab.

The antique crimping machine was turned on and began to whir as Dutton pulled and teased the candy so it could go through the machine. His wife kept the loops forming at the other end as it went down the production line to Olszak.

Four generations of Kellers, beginning with Otto Keller, have used the machines, which were originally hand-operated. Dutton noted that every time a candy operation went out of business, the Kellers would buy the machines, so there are several on the premises if parts are needed.

Dutton said he has been crafting the candy for seven years now. When done well, the candy is the consistency of a potato chip. Too thin and it can cut your tongue. Too thick and it is like a candy cane.

Kellerhaus makes about 1,000 boxes a year and sells it in four-flavor and eight-flavor packages.

Customers are loyal. One 94-year-old Newmarket woman sends a check each year for $60 to get her six boxes in the mail. The boxes have traveled to Europe and, in recent years, to troops serving in Iraq.

The Duttons said they have about eight runs a year of ribbon candy. When the sign goes up on Route 3 outside the store, the run on ribbon candy begins. It will take only a day or two to run out, the Duttons said.

The Duttons are thinking about making the ribbon room climate-controlled so that even on warmer days, they can keep the Christmas tradition alive.

ptracy@unionleader.com

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