The Thomas Kokovikas family. Photo: Courtesy of the family
At the age of 19, my grandfather, Thomas (Athanasios) Kokovikas, Sr., arrived at Ellis Island from Sella, Greece. For the next two years, he worked in the textile mills in Lynn, Massachusetts, as a dishwasher in Boston, and as a fry cook in St. Louis. In the spring of 1912, he came to Minnesota to work in the railroad yards in St. Louis Park. After war broke out between Greece and Bulgaria in the summer of 1913, his Norwegian foreman warned him that the Bulgarian workers might hurt him and suggested he go where other Greeks were working – the Great Northern Railway railroad yards in Willmar.
While still working at the yard, my grandfather learned candy making from Theodore Curtis, a fellow Greek. From 1915-1918, Kokovikas spent his weekends at Curtis’ Boston Candy Kitchen in Willmar. Curtis had also learned the candy making trade from a fellow Greek. Many Greek immigrants set up confectioneries in American cities, from New York and Boston to Chicago and St. Louis. Rather than a trade brought from Greece, it was a niche they created after starting off as street peddlers and learning of America’s sweet tooth. Greek candy workers branched out to all corners of the U.S., particularly to the rural towns of the Midwest, and opened their own stores. In her 2014 dissertation, Ann Flesor-Beck noted that, “however it was spelled, Kandy (or Candy) Kitchen was by far the most popular name for a Greek confectionery” and that “across central Illinois nearly every town of any size had at least one Greek confectionery and soda fountain.”
My siblings and I do not know why our grandfather chose Morris to start his own confectionery, but we presume it had to do with the railway’s route from Willmar to Morris, some encouragement from Curtis, and the opportunities that existed there. Whatever the case, in March 1919, my grandfather and another Greek, James Costatos, opened the Morris Candy Kitchen at 512 Atlantic Avenue in Morris, MN. In the summer of 1920, my grandmother Esther Eul, a local German-Irish girl, came into the store collecting the fuel bill for her father’s Standard Oil business and decided to take a job there as a waitress.
A fire destroyed the store in December 1922. My grandfather decided to rebuild at the same location and took over full ownership. Around that same time, he proposed to Esther. They were married on April 25, 1923. The grand opening for the new store, called Ideal Confectionery, was on July 21, 1923. The new name never really stuck, however, and patrons continued to call it the Candy Kitchen.
Unfortunately, those were tough financial times in America and Morris as well, and the store on 512 Atlantic closed in July 1925. After tries with other confectioneries in Graceville, Donnelly, and Chokio, my grandfather returned to Morris in 1931. He set up shop in the front section of the Level Market grocery store at 416 Atlantic Avenue. In 1938, my grandfather purchased the building and started advertising it as the Morris Candy Kitchen, which would remain open for the next 24 years. My grandmother became the store’s business manager until its closure in 1962. Around that time, my grandmother became sick and they moved in with my uncle, Thomas Kokovikas, Jr., in Alexandria.
In November of 2017, my siblings and I decided to place an ad in the Stevens County Times with the heading “Wanted: Memories of the Morris Candy Kitchen.” We received four responses from readers – three more than we had ever hoped for since we knew it was a long shot with the store having closed 55 years ago.
Beverly, now 87, remembered coming into the store as a kid in the early 1940s and ordering a “gob” – ice cream dipped in chocolate. Ellen, now 90, worked as a waitress in the Candy Kitchen when she was a teenager from about 1942 to 1946. Her older sister also worked there in the years before. Karen, now 67, lived above the store from 1958 to about 1961. Karen said her favorite sweet was a “Buffalo Sundae” – 2 scoops of ice cream with chocolate, marshmallows, and nuts served in a heavy glass dish. She also liked the ribbon candy made during Christmas.
Patty, now 75, wrote a very touching letter and remembered how she “was in the Candy Kitchen many times in the 1950s. Those 5-cent mint patties and maple nut candies were so good. He was such a gentle man. I would wash and clean the front windows and he gave me a dollar and a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream.”
Anyone who ever visited the store would remember the iconic image of my grandpa as the kind and generous man behind the counter, who always wore a white shirt and tie, sleeves rolled-up, and with a cigar in hand.
My family lived in Alexandria, MN, until 1960 when we moved to the Iron Range. We only got to visit the store a few more times between our move and its closing. In 1962, I rode with my grandpa from Alexandria to Morris, perhaps for his last visit to the store. At the time, I wondered why Grandpa was so quiet on the trip back to Alexandria. It was only years later that I realized just how much sadness he must have felt leaving behind the store he loved so much. Shortly after its closing, the building was sold to Arnold Esser, who had a Pontiac dealership on the south side of the store. The building was razed to make room for an expansion.
In her book Growing up Greek in St. Louis, Aphrodite Matsakis wrote something I think all of us can relate to at some point in our lives: “So often we forget that our parents and grandparents are more than our relatives, they are people who had dreams and hopes apart from taking care of us.”
After Memories of the Morris Candy Kitchen was first published in the local historical society’s newsletter, two more responses were received. Richard Holman on August 17, 2018, wrote: “Wonderful memories of the Candy Kitchen and Tom. Also he had wonderful sweet purple grapes on the grapevine on the east end of his garage. Thank you for rekindling numerous wonderful memories.”
Shirley Graham wrote on November 19, 2018: “What a great article! I have spoken so often of this candy shop and Mr. Kokovikas over the years. My brother and Dad took me in there often as a small child and later I went in myself. Mr. Kokovikas was the kindest man I knew. He would often talk of my brother with great kindness. I loved hearing this because my brother was killed in World War II in 1945. I frequented his shop until I graduated in 1957. Thank you for giving me such a warm reminder. And by the way, he made the best candy!”
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