Sweet memories of the Palace of Sweets
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Originally published May 28, 2008
For more than 30 years, the Palace of Sweets was a place of confectionery heaven. The retail candy store opened in the midst of the Second World War in the historic Chisholm Block, on the southeast corner of Jasper Avenue and 104th Street.
With a candy kitchen in the basement, a newspaper and magazine subscription service, and fine tobacco and cigars, it was the most aromatic of stores in downtown Edmonton. The business was started as Western Canada News and Western Canada Subscription Agencies in the late 1930s.
The Palace of Sweets opened its doors in August 1940 as a small confectionery and newsstand at 10411 104th Street. Two years later, it moved to the corner location in the Chisholm Block.
The local owners and a dedicated team of managers, candymakers and clerks built it bite-by-delicious-bite into the city’s foremost place for handmade candy, sold under the name “Ambrosia” – food of the gods. My mother Shirley, recently arrived from Winnipeg, started working at the Palace of Sweets in December 1957. She was 20 years old.
“I saw the ad in the paper, phoned and took the bus down for a job interview,” she remembers. “I walked into the store, looked around, stood there for a few minutes, and said to myself, ‘I can’t work here.’ I had worked at the Hudson’s Bay, but I didn’t know how to use a scale and there were so many products. It was all overwhelming.”
She left the store and stood outside for what she recalls was “the longest time. I knew I had to try. Finally I went back in and had my interview with the manager, Robert Smith. At the end of it, he asked me if I could start tomorrow, the busiest time of the year. I took home $20 that first week.”
It was the beginning of a run that ended three locations and 17 years later when owner D.B. Jones closed the business in May 1974. “It was an amazing experience,” my mother remembers.
“It was a very busy store, especially during special seasons at Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. We had hundreds of steady customers, and we knew most of them by name. There was constant traffic with people buying their overseas newspapers, and their favourite candies, both handmade in the basement and imported.”
Mom figures all told she ate thousands of pounds of confectionery. “They never told us that we couldn’t eat the candy, and there were so many varieties. Some of my favourites were chocolate covered cashews, snowballs (cream centres with chocolate rolled in coconut) and dusty dreams, which were rolled in nuts.”
By the 1960s, the Palace of Sweets had gained renown as “Canada’s Outstanding Confectionery Store” and its exceptional location in the retail heart of Jasper Avenue made it one of downtown’s preferred places to indulge. But then, on Wednesday, February 2, 1966, disaster struck. My mother remembers when the word came at 1:30 pm that there was a fire in the basement.
“We figured they would get it out, but in a matter of minutes it spread, and soon we were running for the exits. I grabbed my purse and $200 from the till, and that was it. We were all standing in the freezing air, watching the fire crews rushing in. When they broke through the big front display window with their axes, we knew it was over.”
I was just five years old at the time, but I remember that night vividly. Crews battled the blaze for more than seven hours in the 10 degree Fahrenheit air, while we sat in the Carousel Restaurant just across 104th Street. A fireman suddenly rushed in and yelled, “Everybody out!” Crews were concerned that the wall of the Chisholm Block was about to collapse.
Damage from the blaze was estimated at $400,000 and engineering studies quickly revealed the old building was beyond salvage. It wasn’t the first time fire had struck a building on the site. In January 1907, fire roared through a structure erected the previous year by W.R. Killips.
A.R. Chisholm, a pioneer resident who came to Edmonton by Red River Cart in 1880, bought the property and in May 1914 began work erecting what was to be a six-storey concrete and steel building. By the time the steel was up, war had broken out and construction was suspended. The building wasn’t finished until after the war ended.
After the 1966 fire, the owners of the Palace of Sweets moved to a temporary location just down the street. The following February, the new store at 10122 Jasper Avenue was ready. Just two months later, a faulty electrical fixture started yet another fire that reduced candy, cigarettes, cigars and magazines to ashes. Damage was estimated at $10,000.
Despite the hiccups, and challenges from a shifting retail climate, business was good. But in 1974 owner D.R. Jones decided to retire and close the doors. The art of handmade candy making was dying out, being replaced by machine-driven mass production.
How the owners came to choose the name is lost in time, but they may have been inspired by Emil Brach, father of the Brach’s candy empire. In 1904, the German immigrant pulled together $1,000 to open the Palace of Sweets, a Chicago candy shop.
For a kid growing up in Edmonton, the Palace of Sweets was a magical place. More than 30 years after it closed, Mom and I still share memories and appreciation for a remarkable store in a remarkable time.
“I still remember all the smells,” Mom says. “The delicious candy cooking in the copper kettles, the sweet aroma of the fragrant pipe tobacco. There was nothing like it. A store with a full candy kitchen in the basement is sadly something we’ll never see here again. But it was great while it lasted.”
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.