SIERRA FOOTHILLS (KPIX 5) -- For many of us, candy canes are a symbol of the holiday season. But for one family in the Sierra Foothills, they're part of their heritage.
At Northern California's oldest candy shop, KPIX got a lesson in making candy canes the old-fashioned way.
In Columbia State Historic Park, where Main Street is preserved from the Gold Rush days, a visit to Nelson's Columbia Candy Kitchen is like looking through a window of history.
Mike McMahon measures sugar and water, the first step in creating Nelson's signature foot-long candy canes.
"It's like working with glass almost, you know, like the glass blowers," McMahon said.
From shiny copper kettles to marble tables, he uses equipment that's more than a century old paired with recipes from the 1800s.
"Nobody looks at a candy cane the same after they see this," McMahon explained. He is part of the Nelson family, which has hand-made confections for five generations.
Among the youngest candy makers is his nephew, Max Voorhees.
"I've been around it my whole childhood. I probably made my first batch of candy canes at five or six," said Voorhees. Voorhees' grandmother, Janice Nelson, runs the business.
"This is a great lifestyle and a great heritage and tradition to carry on," Nelson said.
McMahon, who is Nelson's son-in-law, has made candy at the shop for 28 years.
He showed KPIX how he cooks 35 pounds of candy canes a day during the holidays. The hot sugary syrup gets cooled on a special table. Part of it gets colored red while the rest reaches the right temperature and texture.
Then, the peppermint flavor goes in as McMahon pulls the mixture on a hook to stretch out air bubbles until it turns white, like satin. He presses it all together and keeps it warm on a spinning table from 1911.
McMahon snips off sections, but has only seconds to shape them before the sugar hardens.
Voorhees watches his uncle with a smile.
"It's the very best part: It's why I love doing candy cane tours at Christmas time so much, because getting to see it through other people's eyes who've never seen it before is so special," he said.
Nelson says a Danish candy maker and his wife actually set up the shop on Main Street 96 years ago. One of their employees, a former coal miner named Rex Nelson, bought the business in 1936.
Rex Nelson was Janice Nelson's grandfather-in-law and when he died 50 years ago, she and her late husband Michael moved from southern California to Columbia to take over.
"I came to this town for the first time 50 years ago and it was magical," Janice Nelson remembers.
Her grandkids, like Voorhees, got hooked, too.
"This is a really special trade. It's one that not many people have the opportunity to pursue," Voorhees said.
The family's stayed in business with new flavors like coconut pineapple ribbons as well as old favorites, like chocolate almond bark and honeycomb, hand-dipped by longtime employees and snapped up by customers like Karen Bissett.
"There's candy here you can't get anywhere else," Bissett said. "I come 'cause every time I leave, I'm happy."
For Janice Nelson and her family, making candy is part joy and part art. "Everybody's always smiling. That's the best part," McMahon said.
"When you get a really beautiful candy cane, it's nice," Voorhees said.
And Nelson family members hope to keep sharing their twist on their sweet heritage for generations to come.
"KPIX, Merry Christmas!" Nelson smiled as she completed four large candy canes with the call letters K-P-I-X.
During the holiday season, the Nelson family invites members of the public to tour their kitchen and learn to make candy.
There's a lottery: they take about a hundred people per weekend. Thousands of people send in postcards by the Labor Day deadline for a chance to make candy canes.
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