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Virginia’s iconic candy store back in the hands of Canelake family

Pamela and Dennis Matson make a batch of milk chocolate turtles to prepare for the reopening of Canelake's Candies last Saturday. Janna Goerdt for the News Tribune 1 / 6
Brothers John (left) and Leo Canelake stand outside Canelake's Candies in Virginia in a photo taken in the early 1960s. Courtesy of Canelake's Candies2 / 6
A candy dipper at Canelake's Candies works with chocolates at the store in the early 1960s. Courtesy of Canelake's Candies3 / 6
This photo from the late 1950s-early 1960s shows the interior of Canelake's Candies in Virginia. Courtesy of Canelake's Candies 4 / 6
Nina Krahl dips peanut butter meltaways to prepare for the reopening of Canelake's Candies. Janna Goerdt for the News Tribune 5 / 6
John Canelake, the second generation of candy makers at Canelake's Candies, makes a batch of milk chocolate turtles. Canelake's twin daughters, Pamela and Patricia, and other family members recently purchased the Virginia store. Courtesy of Canelake's Candies6 / 6

VIRGINIA — The same smell of warm milk chocolate still greets visitors when they walk through the front door of the iconic red-and-white striped Canelake's Candies on Chestnut Street in Virginia — and now, those treats are being made by the third generation of the Canelake family.

"It's really nice to get the family store back," said Pamela Matson, granddaughter of one of the candy store's founders, Gust Canelake. Pamela, her husband Dennis, her twin sister Patricia Canelake, and siblings John and Chris Canelake recently bought back the Virginia store from longtime owner Jim Cina, who retired in October.

The Virginia store reopened on Saturday.

Pamela Matson and Patricia Canelake opened their own seasonal candy store in Knife River in 2007. Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen sells many of the original Canelake recipes, including chocolate and caramel turtles, fudge and caramel.

When they heard the original Virginia store might be for sale, it wasn't a hard decision for the sisters and their siblings to step up, even though many of them are at or close to retirement age themselves.

"Candy is a happy thing," Pamela Matson said. "It's something that makes people happy."

Seeing the Canelake tradition continue in Virginia is exciting, said Laurentian Chamber of Commerce CEO and president Melissa Cox.

"They have such a special niche in our community," Cox said. "It means a lot to have these businesses continue (their) legacy here."

The Virginia store, originally called the "Virginia Candy Kitchen," was founded in 1905 by brothers Christ, Gust and Tom Canelake. Eventually Christ and Tom opened their own candy stores, one down the street in Virginia and one in Hibbing. Gust Canelake brought his own two sons, Leo and John, into the business. And, eventually, John Canelake had his own family, including twin sisters Patricia and Pamela.

Pamela Matson stirs a batch of caramel in one of the candy kitchen's original copper kettles. Janna Goerdt for the News TribuneThe new owners plan a limited reopening of the candy store's nostalgic soda fountain, offering Green River sodas and Coke, Pamela Matson said. A family friend unexpectedly dug up four of the original soda fountain stools, and they found part of an original booth in the candy store's basement.

Some new treats, such as a salted caramel turtles, will migrate in from the Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen, Pamela Matson said. A few days before the store reopened, Canelake employee Nina Krahl was busy dipping new peanut butter meltaways in a river of melted milk chocolate.

Pamela and Dennis Matson were busy making their first batch of caramel in one of Gust Canelake's original copper kettles. They stirred steadily with a long wooden paddle as the mixture of butter, cream and sugar bubbled and steamed. As the caramel cooked, they kept a close watch on a digital thermometer that hung on the wall nearby. When the thermometer hit the magic temperature of 239 degrees they donned thick gloves to lift the heavy kettle off the heat.

"Ooh," Pamela Matson said as her wrist accidentally touched the hot copper. In her father and grandfather's day, they cooked more by feel. Gust and John Canelake would wet their bare hands, swipe two fingers through the boiling caramel, and quickly roll it into a ball. If the ball stood up firmly, "like a soldier," Pamela Matson said, the caramel was ready.

As the Matsons stirred caramel and Krahl dipped chocolate, retired Canelake's owner Jim Cina walked in the back door. Since selling the business in early October, he still drops by to pick up mail and check in on the new owners.

"This has come full circle," Cina said. "That's pretty good."

Cina apprenticed as a candymaker for nine months with John Canelake before buying the business in 1983. He used all of the original candy recipes, though he brought in a few more modern techniques.

"Talking to Jim is just like talking to my dad," Pamela Matson said.

John Canelake didn't encourage his children to follow in the family business.

At the time, Pamela Matson said, families were more interested in seeing their children go off to college or other secondary education.

"My dad loved the store," she said. "But he worked very hard, he worked seven days a week, and we were not encouraged to take over the family business."

But later in life, John Canelake was thrilled to see his twin daughters open their own candy shop using the family recipes, and in his later years, he loved to talk candy with his daughters. John Canelake died on Christmas day in 2012, at age 92.

As Pamela Matson set those fresh peanut butter meltaways on sheet pans to dry, she reminisced about her family's history with candy.

"I feel like my dad and Uncle Leo would be really happy," she said.