During 1920, in a small Minneapolis storefront, something sticky was cooking. Every morning at three, 37-year-old Frank Mars arose and hobbled around the kitchen on a cane, making a batch of his special-recipe butter creams. His wife, Ethel, carried these candies onto the streetcar later in the day to sell to shopkeepers around town. For many months, the enterprise generated little income. Frank lacked the credit to buy ingredients in bulk, so he paid cash for small quantities of sugar that he scrounged from other candy makers. Eventually, though, several retailers, including Woolworth, grew into steady buyers of Victorian Butter Creams. Hoping to capitalize on his budding success, Frank developed a candy bar with caramel, chocolate, and nuts. The promising sales of this confection inspired him to adopt the candy bar’s name, Mar-O-Bar, as the name of his business. ¶ Frank and Ethel’s struggling candy concern would soon rocket to the forefront of the American candy industry. But neither Victorian Butter Creams nor the Mar-O-Bar produced this success. Instead, it required the invention of a revolutionary new candy bar, the Milky Way. And, most surprising of all, Frank’s estranged son from a previous marriage, Forrest, would badger and battle his father into building a candy business that eventually became America’s largest.
Frank was born in Newport, just southeast of St. Paul, in 1883. He had polio as a child, which limited his mobility and made physically demanding activities impossible. During long hours in his mother’s company, he frequently watched her make fresh batches of candy. The difficult process intrigued him. When Frank finished high school, he became a candy wholesaler and soon married. Forrest was born in 1904.
It was a promising time to enter the candy business. America’s preeminent confectioner had just introduced the world’s first candy bar, the all-chocolate Hershey bar. Within a few years, makers would flood the market with carloads of colorfully named products. In the Twin Cities alone, firms manufactured the Rough Rider, Chicken Spanish, Cherry Humps, Chick-O-Stick, Prom Queen, Fat Emma, Cold Turkey, and Long Boy Kraut. Pearson’s, founded in 1909 in St. Paul, famously developed the Nut Goodie, which is still popular today.
Meanwhile, Frank’s wholesaling business flopped, and his wife sued him for divorce on the grounds of nonsupport. She sent Forrest to live with her parents in Saskatchewan while she tried to make it on her own in Minneapolis. Frank saw his son only rarely in the years that followed.
Fresh from bankruptcy, Frank met and married Ethel, and the couple moved to Seattle. He launched new candy enterprises there and in Tacoma, both of which ended in financial collapse. Longing for the Midwest and hoping to escape creditors, the Marses returned to the Twin Cities in 1920.
By then, the government had introduced countless World War I servicemen to candy bars in their military rations, and the soldiers found they were a hard habit to break. Candy manufacturers responded by cranking out even more varieties. In Minneapolis, the Pendergast Candy Company invented an entirely new ingredient, a fluffy nougat created by mixing whipped egg whites and sugar syrup. Known as the Minneapolis Nougat, this addition to the candy maker’s arsenal awaited some breakthrough use.
While his father struggled, Forrest Mars grew up. He left Canada, attended college, and embarked on a career as a traveling salesman. If he thought of his father at all, it was as a failure.
But in the summer of 1923, the two met again. Forrest was directing a crew of promoters for Camel cigarettes; in Chicago, the group plastered the city with posters, even defacing municipal signs. Forrest landed in jail, and Frank, whose fortunes had risen with the invention of the Mar-O-Bar (he and Ethel now lived in a five-bedroom house in the Twin Cities), bailed him out.
Frank and Forrest had not seen each other for years, but their meeting led to one of the great legends in the candy industry: the invention of the Milky Way bar. As Forrest later recalled it, father and son were sitting together at a soda fountain when Forrest asked Frank why Mar-O-Bar couldn’t produce a bar with national appeal. (At the time, 65 percent of Frank’s business was in the Twin Cities.) Forrest then examined his ice-cream drink and said in a careless way, “Why don’t you put this chocolate malted drink in a candy bar?”
Frank took the suggestion seriously. Within weeks, he had found a novel use for a chocolate-flavored version of the Minneapolis Nougat. “He put some caramel on top of it, and some chocolate around it—not very good chocolate, he was buying cheap chocolate—but that damn thing sold,” Forrest recalled. And so, the Milky Way was born.
A nougat candy bar had big advantages over bars made from solid chocolate, nuts, and other ingredients. It was cheap to make and lightweight. It was also larger than competing candies. “People walked up to the candy counter, and they’d see this flat little Hershey bar for a nickel and right next to it, a giant Milky Way for the same price. Guess which one they’d pick?” Forrest said.
The Milky Way generated nearly $800,000 in sales its first year on the market, equivalent to almost $8.7 million today. The bar inspired an early spin-off product—the Vanilla Milky Way, now called the Milky Way Midnight—and Frank’s company became Mars Candies in 1926. But financial problems soon forced Mars to let loose its most prized possession. For several years, he licensed production rights for the Milky Way to the Schuler Candy Company of Winona. Then, when cash flow improved in 1929, Mars bought back the rights for $5,000.
Eventually, the Mar-O-Bar vanished. So, too, did the Minneapolis headquarters of Mars. In 1927, the company purchased a former golf course near Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, and transformed it into a new home and manufacturing plant. When the factory was completed in 1928, it could produce 20 million candy bars a year.
For years, Frank brushed off Forrest’s suggestions for running the business more efficiently and profitably. The father and son parted ways when Forrest demanded one-third ownership of the company. Frank refused, and Forrest went on to market the Milky Way in Europe, develop M&M’s, and later build Mars into America’s largest candy maker.
Even as he approached 50, Frank continued to innovate: in 1930, he introduced the Snickers bar; 3 Musketeers soon followed. Family conflicts aside, Frank still found enjoyment in his business and in life. He and Ethel drove a $20,000 Duesenberg and built a vacation home in Wisconsin. Long a lover of horses, he established a 2,700-acre farm for breeding racehorses in Tennessee—and called it Milky Way. (One of the farm’s horses, Gallahadion, won the Kentucky Derby in 1940.) Frank died from kidney failure in 1934, and his body was returned to Minneapolis for burial in Lakewood Cemetery. Forrest did not attend the funeral.
Jack El-Hai is a Minneapolis writer.