I heard this week that there will be no more Darling’s, the old popcorn store, in Oak Bluffs this summer or any other summer. Murdick’s Fudge Kitchen of Mackinac Island, Michigan, will take its place.
I have nothing against Murdick’s Fudge Kitchen. It has been selling fudge in Edgartown for four years now, and I’ve enjoyed it, and my sister in law, who has a house at East Chop, smacked her lips when she heard the news and said: “Now there’s fudge!”
But Murdick’s isn’t Darling’s, which has sold buttery white popcorn, and popcorn bars, and saltwater taffy on Circuit avenue since the turn of the century.
In those days it was Farwell & Greely, as it had been for at least two decades before that when it had another Oak Bluffs location - probably through the Arcade in Montgomery Square, though no one is quite sure today.
Darling’s sold other confections besides popcorn and taffy (the late Katharine Cornell was partial to the butterscotch, I’m told). But it was the popcorn that came out of the big copper kettle with its burnished lid that Thomas H. Chirgwin had made in his Circuit avenue plumbing shop, and the taffy that were important to me.
Taffy came in collapsible white cardboard boxes with red and green lettering. I dreamed of it all winter long and scurried down Circuit avenue after it the first thing in the summer, not even stopping to hop from rock to rock along Lake Anthony.
In my Oak Bluffs summer childhood in the 30s and 40s, there were four star attractions for us: the Flying Horses, of course; Sone’s Japanese Store, which sold lacquer apples with doll’s tea sets in them; the public library, with the Little Colonel series in pink bindings; and Darling’s popcorn store, “For 20 years the best.”
It had been the best for 20 years when my father was a boy in the Highlands, too, and my child’s mind always puzzled over that. (it puzzled the same way about my great grandfather’s birthday, which was May 12 while mine was May 10. I knew he was older than I was because his hair was white and he walked with a cane, but when we celebrated birthdays together, he insisted that I was. After all, my birthday came two days sooner. Surely there was no denying that.)
Of my father’s generation, Alfred A. Hall remembers how, when he was courting Marjorie Lambert, who became his wife, they’d take his Ford Terraplane, borrowed from her uncle, Chester Pease, and drive up the avenue in it. “Marjorie would say, ‘That popcorn smells good,’ so I’d drive a little closer so she could smell it better, and we’d buy a box or a bag of it. You could buy a bag for a nickel in those days, or it was 10 cents for a big box.”
And even before that, more than 70 years ago, when he was a youngster, Alfred Hall remembers munching chocolate popcorn bars that got sticky if you didn’t finish them right away and left them unwrapped and the weather was damp. But they got tastier, too, the stickier and limper they got. Popcorn bars were about eight inches long and two inches wide and an inch thick. If they were chocolate, they were brown; white if vanilla; tan if molasses, and a lovely baby pink if they were wintergreen.
They were so popular, there was even an Edgartown outlet for them. Harry Collins sold them. “He’d take them down to the Chappaquiddick bathing beach ferry,” Alfred Hall remembers, “and sell them from a garden basket he carried over his arm.”
It got so they called Harry Collins “Popcorn Harry,” according to Henry Beetle Hough, who says Harry also sold them on the train that ran between Cottage City and Edgartown at the turn of the century.
And if you’d forgotten to stock up on Darling’s saltwater taffy before you left the Island in those days, you could be assured of buying a box aboard the steamer, where it was sold at the concession counter.
“It was a must when I was a young girl and we came over from New Bedford to go home with Darling’s saltwater taffy,” Mrs. James A. Boyle of New Seabury, formerly of Vineyard Haven, remembers. “There was that wonderful kind with the nuts in it.”
Peanut taffy was always among the most popular flavors, says Mrs. Harris Carr, whose husband owned Darling’s from 1939 until 1958, “but we had 12 other kinds, too,” she adds proudly, and recites the mouth-watering litany. “Vanilla, chocolate, chocolate cream, peanut, peanut butter center, cloves, cinnamon, anise, lime, molasses, molasses peppermint, mollasses nut, perppermint.”
John Phillips also enjoyed Darling’s confections through the years. In 1916, when the telegraph office was next door to Darling’s, he worked summers delivering telegrams. “And Mr. Darling always got a good chunk of my pay,” he recalls. John Phillips also remembers the sorrowful morning in June, 1958 when he stood in front of his hardware store, watching smoke and flames streaming from the old popcorn store.
“They’d been cooking the butter - they always used real butter at Darling’s, and real cream, and the butter flared up, and the firemen couldn’t stop Harris from running around trying to save things, and he had a heart attack.”
After that, his widow took over.
It was to be expected that Darling’s only used pure dairy butter and fresh cream in its confections, because C. John Darling was a native Vermonter. The butter for the candy would come from the Green Mountain State in firkins.
Harris Carr first worked at the candy store in the summer of 1919. Mr. Darling was his aunt’s husband, and was short of help because of the war. He asked young Harris, who lived in Leominster, if he’d like to work for him.
It was a love affair with the Vineyard and candy almost at first sight. Though Harris Carr went away for a time, by 1923 he had made up his mind that the candy business and the Island were for him. So he went to work full-time for Mr. Darling, who similarly had started out as an employee of Farewell & Greely, had become partner and quickly the owner.
As it turned out, virtually everyone in the Carr family turned to candy making. When John Darling died in 1936, Harris’s brother Maurice came to settle the estate and stayed on to work at the confectionary store, and when the young men’s father, Frank, gave up farming in Leominster, he went to work in the candy kitchen too.
“He was 80 by then, but he put us all to shame. He’d make all the fudges, and the taffy and the caramel,” Mrs. Carr recalls.
Although in those days Edith Carr was a nurse at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, there were occasions when she too would help out at the store.
“Oh, I loved running that big turkey-red taffy machine. You’d put the taffy on it, and you had to pull it at least ten minutes, or it would be too sticky. It pulled like a figure-eight, and passers-by would stop and watch you.
“You put the flavor right in on the machine - all except the lime. That had to go in separately. You’d just add a few drops of this or that, but it was a ticklish business, getting the flavors just right.”
Every night, Mrs. Carr remembers, the taffy machine had to be taken apart and cleaned, and the platform the store stood on would have to be rolld in and the awning lowered. And every winter, every bit of machinery had to be dismantled and oiled and painted, and the maroon and silver sign with the big letters on it touched up. That made it virtually a year-round business.
Darling’s opened each Memorial Day - invariable with a poem by the late Joseph Chase Allen announcing the event in the Gazette. And it closed at the end of October.
Although most of the business was street sales, there were always those who wanted taffy sent out to them to their winter homes, or during World War II, who wanted it sent to their sons overseas. What did taffy sell for in those days - 75 cents a pound or 40 cents a half-pound, nostalgic devotees say.
The war put a bit of a crimp in the Darling’s operation, but not a very large one. It mainly meant that instead of opening at eight in the morning and staying open until midnight, the counter was not pushed out until eleven, and closing might be earlier.
Until 1965, Darling’s sat at the top of the Circuit avenue hill, but Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Metell, to whom Mrs. Carr sold it in 1961, moved it to its present location near the Island Theatre in 1965, and the old structure was torn down. In 1965 the Metells sold Darling’s to Bernard Lewis, who last week sold it to Murdick’s.
As I said, I wish Murdick’s Fudge all the best - though admittedly, grudgingly, Circuit avenue just won’t be the same without Darling’s.
Writing this, remembering the popcorn bars and the burnished copper kettle, and how I would watch the taffy-puller, enthralled, in my childhood - even forgetting those other exciting Oak Bluffs errands I had in prospect - I have remembered one of my earliest attempts at versification.
It doesn’t measure up to Joe Allen’s way of heralding the popcorn store’s opening each spring, but it verifies the warm (and sticky) place Darling’s will always hold in my heart:
When I go down to Darling’s, close,
by the sea
I always take my little red bag
along with me.
The sun is shining in the sky.
The sunshine is up so very high,
When I go down to Darling’s, close
by the sea.