story by Sharon Verbeten photos by Heidi Hodges
But she never would have dreamed that one day she and her family would be running the place—known officially as Uncle Tom’s Newport School Candies in Newport/Ellison Bay. It’s not exactly a Willy Wonka story, but just the same, it’s one showered in peanut brittle and chocolate bark—and life is just a little bit sweeter these days.
It may be cliché to call her a kid in a candy store, but these days, Laughlin, 43, wouldn’t be anywhere else. She and her husband, Jim (an Illinois native), and their three children—Alyssa, Anthony and Alex—now live upstairs in the 1900s schoolhouse, where Laughlin’s grandparents actually attended school.
“We were just looking for a house to buy,” recalls Laughlin, who grew up just down the road in Gill’s Rock, where her parents Mark and Melanie Weborg owned the Top of the Thumb gift shop for 46 years. “Growing up in the gift shop, I knew a little bit about how a store was run,” says Laughlin, who, with her husband, has owned the candy shop since 1997.
The Laughlins were looking for a house when they heard that Marge Larson—the iconic 20-year employee of Uncle Tom’s affectionately known as Aunt Marge—was looking to sell the place. Fate, fudge and family intervened—and the Laughlins soon found themselves living upstairs and cooking and selling candy downstairs.
A Hidden Landmark
Not every visitor to Door County makes it all the way up the peninsula, and admittedly, Uncle Tom’s is a bit off the beaten path. But when people do find it, they come back. A lot.
Laughlin says many of the store’s customers are not only repeat customers—many have been coming there for decades and remember the smiling, gentle Uncle Tom Collis, who opened the store on Europe Bay Road in the 1970s.
Customers often note, “We’ve driven by this place a million times and never stopped…they’re just amazed. They love it,” says Laughlin.
Known for his outgoing nature and perpetual smile, Uncle Tom—who died in 1990 at age 86—was as much of a draw to the store as the confections, which include peanut brittle (the store’s number one seller), fudge, and chocolate bark, as well as old fashioned pancake and porridge mixes.
But Uncle Tom also lived by the motto “gratitude is attitude,” which he gently nudged customers to say to get a free bag of freshly popped popcorn. (Yes, you can still get that free, fresh popcorn!)
Visiting Uncle Tom’s was—and still is—a true experience. As Laughlin admits, it’s less just going to buy candy and more visiting an iconic location and staying to chat awhile. It’s a very social place.
“It’s that family feel of being there,” Laughlin says. “I always tell my girls, [when] people come in, it’s not just to buy candy; a lot of people come in just to talk. We get the nicest people.”
It’s easy to see why people want to linger at Uncle Tom’s. The founder decorated the old school house in a very eclectic style—with walls and shelves covered with memorabilia, a lot of it political, including letters and photos from historic political figures. Laughlin notes that Uncle Tom himself was very politically involved, including serving a four-year stint as mayor of Forest Park, Ill. in the early 1940s (interestingly, he won as a write-in candidate!).
“I’ve always felt it’s [the décor] very important to this place,” says Laughlin, who hasn’t changed up much of the interior décor. “Uncle Tom just had this special way about him…this was his creation, his dream,” she notes.
Today, Laughlin is not only the owner but the candy maker at Uncle Tom’s, where everything is 100 percent homemade. “I’m cooking from the second I get out of bed until 6 or sometimes 10 o’clock at night.
“It’s crazy,” says Laughlin. “I never ever would have thought that I would be doing this; I didn’t have a clue how to make candy.” Fortunately, Larson stayed a few weeks to help her and share recipes. “She taught me the ropes,” Laughlin says.
She admits to making a few sticky missteps in her 20 years at the helm. “The fudge is by far the hardest [to make]. It took me a few years to get it down,” Laughlin says. “It’s very touchy; you have to have it absolutely perfect.”
Now she spends long, hot days making brittles, barks and fudge. Most of the recipes are original; some Laughlin has tweaked, such as expanding the line of chocolate barks to 16 varieties, from almond and pecan bark to mint Oreo and the extremely popular chocolate and Door County cherry.
And they make A LOT! Last year, Laughlin says they used more than 5,400 lbs. of chocolate, 6,800 lbs. of nuts and more than 4,000 lbs. of sugar to whip up all those treats.
After living her whole life at the top of the peninsula and working in the retail atmosphere, Laughlin feels that running Uncle Tom’s is truly more than a job or even just a family business.
Somehow, it means more.
“It’s important to history, to Door County, to Gill’s Rock,” she says.
“I just love having people come in…and thank me…‘Thank you for keeping this place going. We come back here year after year; it’s a tradition for us.’
“We have pride in that; it makes you feel good.”
Uncle Tom’s Newport School Candies, Newport; www.uncletomscandy.com