A Tailing Tale

Of Bill and Dorothy Harmsen and Jolly Rancher candy

By Maggie Magoffin

Bill was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 12, 1912 and Dorothy in Minneapolis on September 13, 1914. Bill flew as a pilot for Continental Airlines and it was during those years that he met Dorothy on a blind date. They moved to Denver in 1942 and bought a farm on Ward Road. In 1949, Bill retired from the airlines, and the couple opened an ice cream shop under the Washington Avenue arch in downtown Golden.

Initially, the Harmsens’ ice cream store sold soft-serve ice cream and later sold chocolates and other candies to tide the business over during the cold winter months when ice cream sales slowed down. However, they eventually grew dissatisfied with the quality of the candies of their local vendor and decided to make their own.

They hired a local confectioner whose translucent cinnamon hard taffy became popular with their customers. The Harmsens sold the spicy candy as Fire Stix and credited its popularity in part to the Colorado beet sugar used in the recipe. Schoolchildren became regular customers of the incinerating spicy candy, and the watermelon and green apple flavors ran a close second.

The Harmsens cooked the hard candy in a kitchen installed in the family’s big red barn on Gap Road in Gilpin County, eventually producing 1 million pounds of the sweet stuff each week. Every space in the barn and their home became a storeroom for the candy. Their son, Bob, was once quoted as saying, “I remember bagging candy on the dining room table.” However, he never lost his taste for the Fire Stix. He said, “I still buy ‘em when I can find ‘em.”

Brother, Bill, said that during his boyhood, his bedroom served as a storeroom and, “I woke up every morning to the smell of candy and all these huge boxes all over my bedroom.” The constant exposure made him, “Not fond of candy.”

Dorothy Harmsen maintained a sweet tooth throughout her life and was delighted to receive boxes of Russell Stovers, Hammond’s or Stephanie’s chocolates as gifts from friends and family.

There seems to be two contradicting stories as to how the Harmsens came up with the name Jolly Rancher. Several reporters claim they named it after the Jolly Miller Hotel in Minneapolis. Others claim they came up with the name because it expressed the friendly, welcoming atmosphere of the west.

Although, the Harmsens began their candy production and sales with chocolates, it was the cinnamon, watermelon, apple, cherry, and lemon fruit-flavored hard candies that soon outsold the ice cream and chocolates and eventually propelled Jolly Rancher to regional and international success.

The barn where they produced the candies became a tourist attraction, drawing two million visitors a year and the couple liberally handed out samples to schoolchildren on tours. Traffic jams formed on Halloween when workers gave candy to trick-or-treaters.

Colorado governors presented Fire Stix and other Jolly Rancher candy as goodwill gifts to visiting dignitaries, including former first lady Mamie Eisenhower.

In the 1960’s, the Harmsens donated much of their land to the state, and the beautiful canyon area now known as Golden Gate Canyon State Park was once the property of Bill and Dorothy Harmsen.

In 1967, when Bill and Dorothy sold Jolly Rancher to Beatrice Foods, they began investing in an impressive collection of Western art that included works by Alfred Jacob Miller, George Catlin, Joseph Henry Sharp, Victor Higgins, Frederic Remington, and Robert Henri. Over the next four decades, they bought thousands of pieces of Western art. In 2001, one year prior to Bill’s death in 2002, the family donated more than 3,000 pieces of artworks and artifacts, including paintings, text and sculpture, to the Denver Art Museum, where Dorothy once served as a board member.

Dorothy Harmsen died at the age of 91 on August 29, 2006 and was survived by sons, Bill Harmsen, Jr. of Mexico, Bob Harmsen of Arvada, and Mike Harmsen of Lakewood.

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