What started as two women making tropical treats for their friends was made stalwart by the Taylor and Webb families.
As a kid growing up in South-Central Florida there was always great promise venturing north on US 27 toward the big city of Orlando. What wonders there were in the city full of theme parks and dinner shows! Passing Haines City and inching closer to I-4, you always knew your destination was nearby when the huge signed beaconed: “Citrus Candy Factory: Visitors Welcome” and “Goats Milk Fudge!”
Mom, dad, can we please stop??!! That plea often didn’t take a ton of convincing. There were wonderful, unique pleasures inside.
The business dates back to the mid-to-late 1920s. Kathryn Stillman and Maude Blodgett — two women from Devlan Lake, Wisconsin — lived together and wintered in Davenport, Florida. Enamored by the wide variety of citrus they found in the Sunshine State, the two developed recipes to transform the fruits (peels and all) into sweet delicacies. The challenge they conquered was removing the tartness — a secret they had held close to the vest for many years!
The ladies first started making sweets out of their homes. They first treated friends and then began serving it to their Sun Dial Tea Room party guests. By 1928 the treats had become so popular that they retailed in local stores around Davenport.
Demand quickly outstretched the capacity of their home kitchen, so the confectioners moved into their first commercial space. It was a two-room facility with a small retail front, which they called the Sun Dial Candy Shop.
A year later, they were expanding again, financing a factory capable of large-scale production. The candy-makers added 10 full-time employees (all women) to the crew in 1930 and two delivery drivers and trucks to service their growing list of wholesale clients.
For reasons this author has not yet discovered, T. R. Blakslee took over the business around 1931. Perhaps he was the financier or the business got a little too big for Stillman and Blodgett, who still preferred spending their summers back in Wisconsin.
Despite the quality product and some documented large orders (one in 1250 pound bulk!), the business struggled in 1931. The deepening of the Great Depression could not have helped matters. Blakslee was forced to shutter the factory for several months and looked to sell his interest in Tropical Sweets Incorporated.
Meanwhile, Claude S. and Verna Taylor relocated to Florida from New York in 1926. After moving around a few times, they eventually settled near Winter Haven. However, Claude quickly got bored of retired life. Through a mutual friend, he learned that Blakslee was shopping the candy factory and decided to make a go of it. Taylor acquired the company in 1932.
The real estate investor knew nothing about candy but knew about business. After purchasing the manufacturing facility, the next thing he did was secure the real brains behind the operation. He re-employed the services of several of the women from Sun Dial, including Blodgett and Stillman. Later he convinced the duo to sell him their proprietary secret formula.
Claude renamed the company to C. S. Taylor & Company and branded the candies as Taylor’s Tropical Sweets. This 1930 factory served as the company’s home for 46 years. It was located in the Davenport business district near the railroad tracks, along the Dixie Highway (now roughly US Highway 17–92). This building still exists on Bay Street in downtown Davenport.
Taylor fancied himself as a salesman first, and sell he did! Claude spent much of the next 15 years on the road, servicing existing clients and acquiring new ones. Under his tenure, the business expanded production capacity, added new product lines, employed dozens, and shipped nationwide.
Claude died in 1962, but Taylor’s Tropical Sweets did not miss a beat. While Claude was on the road, his wife Verna had already run much of the day-to-day operations. She became the company’s president, and its reputation grew with locals and tourists alike.
With Verna running the kitchen, the Taylors expanded their catalog from the original four to 40 products, but always with a core focus on their unique citrus sweets. They also shipped large amounts of orange blossom honey. The marinades, glazes, and jellies were discovered to be a convenient byproduct of preparing the peels for consumption. However, their most famous offering was a candied grapefruit peel shaped into a signature rose as a centerpiece for their packages.
The widow remarried a few years later and became Verna Cline. She put her new husband, Dean, to work stirring the copper kettles and sugaring the pecan orangettes.
A thousand miles away in New York, another candy dynasty was brewing. Paul and Nadine Webb were childhood sweethearts who first met in the first grade. The couple married in 1942 at just 19 years old. That same year they purchased their first business, the Fountainette. It was a small restaurant and ice cream on Erie Street in Mayville, New York.
Paul was drafted into World War II shortly thereafter and shipped overseas to serve under General Patton. Nadine and his mother, Blanche, ran the Mayville restaurant in his absence and did quite well. When Paul returned, the women had purchased a barn behind the restaurant and started churning out thousands of lollipops with a brisk customer base.
The first Webb’s Candy Factory was thus formed. It sprouted into a full-on tourist resort on Chautauqua Lake. In addition to the candy, the campus grew to include a renowned restaurant, a hotel, a bowling alley, a gift and antique shop, and other attractions. This business still operates today.
Paul and Nadine were tired of New York winters and fell in love with the warm climate and delightful people of Central Florida. Leaving their older children in charge of the family business in Western New York, the couple moved to Winter Haven with their youngest son, John, who was still in high school.
Not ones to slow down, Paul and Nadine saw a lot of opportunity in their new home. With a steady flow of tourists coming to the area for Cypress Gardens and the newly-opened Disney World, the Webb family convinced Verna to sell them the Davenport candy factory.
The Webbs took over the operation in 1972, still running out of the same 1930 facility in downtown Davenport. Just down the road, construction began on Barnum and Bailey’s Circus World in 1973, and it had its grand opening in 1976. Taking advantage of the prime opportunity, Paul and Nadine relocated their operations to the corner of US-27 and County Road 547 to be closer to the tourists and the new “Barnum City.”
Until then, they still operated under the C. S. Taylor name, but with the move, they decided to rebrand as Webb’s Citrus Candy Factory. A vast “Visitors Welcome” sign was constructed along the highway, encouraging motorists to take a free tour. They continued to offer products under the Taylor Tropical Sweets line and other offerings like ice cream and goat milk fudge, which had become popular in their New York complex.
Paul and Nadine also loved the restaurant business. After starting the renowned Captain’s Table in New York (still in business), the Webb family started a popular restaurant in Lake Wales called the Coppertop. It was located on US-27, which many people still remember. They sold the business to the Collins family in 1985.
The dual Florida-New York Webb empire has continued to be a successful business to this day. Cousins still operate the Mayville resort near Lake Erie, which has expanded to include mini-golf next to the hotel.
The Florida Webb’s second headquarters building opened in 1976 and served until the year 2000. When they first moved into this Highway 27 location, they were surrounded by virtually nothing but orange groves for miles.
For many years, the family kept goats on the property (although they did not supply the milk for the goat milk fudge). They grew some of the produce in their adjacent citrus groves; the rest was primarily supplied by Holly Hill Groves. Visitors in the 1980s could pet the goats and take a wagon tour through the groves. That is, until citrus canker decimated the groves.
Between 1999 and 2000, the family greatly expanded their footprint at their US-27/CR-547 intersection. They added real estate offices, medical and professional office suites, a convenience store, a gas station, and a car wash.
The Candy Factory is still in operation, now connected with a Dunkin Donuts. Inside, they still make candies by hand, with the same recipes passed down from Stillman and Blodgett from the 1920s. Copies of the original typewritten formulas are still in the cabinets. In fact, some of the same copper kettles, water-cooled candy tables, scales, and other equipment are still in use from the 1930 factory!
The empire has remained in the family and is only growing. John Webb, who moved here with his parents, Paul and Nadine, as a middle schooler, manages the next-door Webb Realty office. That business is booming; a new wing was just added to that office in 2019 (the new building smell was very evident on this author’s December 28, 2019 visit).
Now the third generation of the Webb family has taken over the candy factory. R.J. Webb, the grandson of Paul and Nadine, manages the sweet shop and other properties of the “Webb Square” campus. The new father proudly showed off pictures of the fourth generation on our visit; his wife Ellie gave birth nine days before to their first child, named Ansley.
What’s striking to me is the powerful and industrious women who have played integral roles in maintaining this legacy — from Blodgett and Stillman to Verna Taylor to Blanche and Nadine Webb. In fact, for the first fifty years or so of the Davenport operation, all of the production employees were women.
The Webb family eagerly credits its dedicated employees, who often have very long tenures lasting decades. One such woman, Nancy Richardson, has worked in the candy kitchen since 1978. R.J. says he frequently coaxes the expert candy maker out of retirement to help him out of a jam! Another, candy packer Sharon Pasno, has been with the company since 1976. Sharon worked for one year in the original building.
The next time you’re driving down US-27, make sure you stop in and check out this historic business. Whether you’re inkling for one of the arrays of house-made ice creams, chocolate, caramel, nuts, goat milk fudge, or citrus candies… the vast selection will satisfy any craving. There are even sugar-free options if you need to manage your glucose.
While you’re there, peak around back (toward the restrooms). Check out the production facility, historic photographs, articles, and equipment on display.
Tell them Jason sent you… oh, and don’t neglect your sweet tooth!