The History of Russell Stover Chocolates

During this country's entrepreneurial heyday, the name Russell Stover was yet to be linked with Valentine's Day. Stover's chocolate-covered success formula would mix business sense with a knack for knowing what the public wanted even before they wanted it. The West's most famous candy man was about to have a major impact on the American sweet tooth.

Russell William Stover was born in a sod house in Alton, Kansas, May 6, 1888, the son of farmers John and Sarah Stover. His Prussian ancestors had come to this country in 1728. Stover was reared on an Iowa farm, attended high school at Iowa City Academy, and studied chemistry for a year at Iowa State University.

His first job came in 1910, as a sales representative for the American Tobacco Co. On June 17, 1911 he married Clara Lewis, a farmer's daughter, and as a wedding gift the couple received a 580 acre farm in Saskatchewan, Canada.

They spent the better part of a year raising wheat and flax, but bad weather convinced Stover that farm life was not his calling. After a move to Winnipeg, he took another sales job, this time for a Minnesota candy company.

Four years later, Stover resigned when his company balked at replacing some questionable merchandise. For a year in Chicago he worked for candy manufacturer A.G. Morris, then spent the next three years with Bunte Candy. By 1918 he knew enough about the business to pull the Irwin Candy Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, out of bankruptcy. At home, he and Clara had begun experimenting in Mrs. Stover's kitchen.

In the western part of Iowa in 1919, a simultaneous sugar renaissance was getting under way that would directly affect the Stovers. It all began when an indecisive Omaha schoolboy who could not decide whether to spend his nickel on chocolate or ice cream.

On the other side of the counter, a part-time Latin teacher moonlighting as a soda jerk, 25 year old Christian Nelson, took particular interest in the dilemma. If the two could be combined, what might the result be?

Using his imagination, a combination of chocolate and cocoa butter, and vanilla ice cream, Nelson invented his magic sandwich. His "I-Scream Bar" had its world premiere at an Omaha Fireman's Tournament.

Candy manufacturers were less than enthusiastic over his gooey brainchild. The process was too complicated, it would melt before it got to the store, the novelty aspect would wear off - these were the kind of rejections Nelson heard from seven experts.

On July 31, 1921, Nelson made his eighth presentation to Russell Stover in Omaha. Stover liked the idea with some reservations. The stick Nelson had incorporated was not a necessity. Also the name had to go. The public would tire of such a mundane pun. It had to have a name of timeless quality, one that conveyed the sweet and cold goodness of the product - something like Eskimo Pie.

Their partnership took the country by storm. A quarter of a million Eskimo Pies sold in Omaha in 24 hours. Stover opened a Chicago office and within a year 1,500 manufacturers were licensed to create the treats, paying four cents on the dozen as a royalty. R.S. Reynold's U.S. Foil Co. would make a million dollars producing just the wrappers.

On January 24, 1922, Nelson obtained patent No 1,404,539 for "an ice cream confection containing normally liquid material frozen to a substantially hard state and encased in a chocolate covering to maintain its original form during handling."

The profits were dizzying, but so too were the ice cream headaches. Eskimo "Pie-rates" were springing up in all corners of the country, selling their versions, regardless of legal protection. Stover and Nelson were spending a staggering $4,000 in daily legal fees, their profits were melting quicker than their product.

Other maneuvers sought to have the patent declared invalid, which eventually happened in 1923. The Eskimo Pie was leaving a sour taste in Russell Stover's mouth. In 1923, he relinquished his part of the frozen bonanza to lawyer Clem Wade for $30,000.

The Stovers had always had an eye on Denver, and in October of 1923, they moved to a home at 960 Detroit Street. Almost immediately, residents on the block were aware of the intoxicating aromas emanating from the new neighbors' kitchen.

While Mrs. Stover hand-dipped her chocolate wonders ("We always used the finest cream, butter, nuts and chocolate," she would confide with a smile), her husband laid plans for his next assault on the American waistline.

"Mrs. Stover's Bungalow Candies" were a sensation from the beginning. The Stovers started with two Denver stores that December, expanding to seven before opening a factory in the Mile High City. A specially equipped motorcycle with a bungalow sidecar made the deliveries.

In 1925, another factory began production in Kansas City. At last, Stover had what he wanted, sole ownership of a quality product. With himself as President and Clara as Vice President, the delicious dynasty spiraled. A third factory opened in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1942.

Russell Stover's contributions to the business went further than his boxed treats. His technical achievements included a patent for dipping tables and a process he called Zephyr Freeze. During World War II he chaired the Washington Committee of the National Confectioners Association. In 1946 he received the industry's Oscar equivalent, the Candy Kettle Award. At the time of his death at 66 in Miami on May 11, 1954, his Kansas City based company was producing 11 million pounds of candy a year, selling it in 40 Stover outlets and across the counter in another 2,000 department stores.

Over the years the Russell Stover story has been eclipsed by the Russell Stover candy and the heart-shaped boxes, a fact the originator would probably have enjoyed. Four plants, including one in Montrose, Colorado, still produce the internationally known goodies, the legacy of a man who came out West seeking the sweet smell of success.