BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — Family-owned Putnam Pantry Candies has been a roadside attraction along Route 1 in Danvers since 1951.
Lately, however, it seems its loyal customers are treating the sweet shop like an elderly aunt who lives out of state: much loved but seldom visited.
All that may change soon as a third generation of the Emerson family has taken over the ownership and operation. But while changes are in store at the candy and ice cream shop at 255 Newbury St., it will still offer a wide selection of homemade candies and its make-your-own sundae bar.
”We want to keep all the things we think are important,” said Eric Emerson, 54, of Danvers, who with his wife, Cathie, took over the business in August from his father, Galo Emerson Jr., the son of Putnam Pantry’s founder. At 81, Galo Emerson Jr. still makes candy for the business.
Eric also runs a financial consulting firm; Cathie runs the shop day-to-day. Putnam Pantry employs 32 people, most of whom work part time.
”It’s an icon. It’s a tradition for a lot of families,” Emerson said. “But ... over the years, a lot of people have kind of forgotten about it. The building kind of blends into the background, so we want to remind them of the reasons to come back and to give them some new reasons.”
They are now making renovations to the rambling ice cream shop and candy factory, with the shop closing on some Mondays during the winter so this work can be done. In another change, the Emersons plan to start making their own ice cream at Putnam Pantry for the first time in nearly 45 years, after attending an ice cream course at Penn State last January.
Renovations include the construction of a chocolate kitchen on the first floor to bring the candy-making up from the basement and in view of customers. They plan to add baked goods and coffee. The whole place will be spruced up, but the country-store feel will remain.
“The ice cream making will be in view of the public,” Eric Emerson said. “Ultimately, we want to open up the whole process from start to finish ... because, people are very interested. It’s kind of the Willie Wonka sensation. They like to see the chocolates marching toward the machine that coats them in chocolate.”
To say Putnam Pantry has a history as rich as its candies is an understatement. Not only has Putnam Pantry been a longtime roadside landmark, the property itself holds historic significance.
The core of the shop was constructed from a two-story barn that dates to the 1700s and was once used as a shoe factory. It is adjacent to a First Period house that was the birthplace of Israel Putnam, a Revolutionary War general who was born in 1781 in what was then Salem Village. The house, known as the Thomas Putnam house and built around 1648, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Gen. Putnam was a top commander during the first half of the Revolution, town archivist Richard Trask said, and was credited with uttering the famous phrase “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. That is why Putnam Pantry features a “belly-buster” 19-scoop sundae called the Bunker Hill.
The home somehow managed to stay in the Putnam-Emerson family up until the Danvers Historical Society was given stewardship in 1991, Trask said.
Recently, the town rezoned a back acre of land to be conveyed to a nonprofit family trust dedicated to preserving historic elements of the home and the life of Israel Putnam. Eric Emerson, a 12th generation descendant of Putnam, lived there from the age of 5 until he went to college.
Galo Emerson Sr., Eric’s grandfather, opened Putnam Pantry in 1951 on what was then a remote stretch of Route 1.
”Route 1 was being made into a modern highway, and my grandfather was trying to think of something he could do to take advantage of that,” Eric said, “And he liked candy. So, he decided to open a candy shop.”
The barn, which has been added on to over the years, became the core of the store after it was moved closer to the road.
The 2 acres of land within the cloverleaf from Route 62 to Route 1 north is all that is left of a farm that once had more than 100 acres.
”Over the years, it’s been chipped away at, taken for roads, taken for the state hospital was a big piece of it,” Eric Emerson said. The land wasn’t sold as much as it was acquired by the state.
About 1960, Putnam Pantry started to make and sell ice cream at a second store across the highway along Route 1 south, where Supino’s Restaurant sits today. They stopped making ice cream about 1970 and closed the location across the highway. The business still makes its own toppings. It was about this time that Galo Emerson Jr., Eric Emerson’s father, bought the business from his father and consolidated it.
Putnam Pantry once had locations in Lexington, Reading and on Pickering Wharf in Salem, but these closed in the early 1990s.
While the Emersons renovate the original Putnam Pantry, they have no plans to open a second location in the near future.
”There are lot of candy and ice cream stores; they are very local,” Eric Emerson said. “Our draw, because of the fact we have been here so long, is wider. That makes us a little less susceptible to the ebb and flow of things.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.