John Huyler: Rye’s Candy King and Philanthropist
In the early 1900s, Huyler’s Candy was a household name and John Huyler’s story was an American tale of resourcefulness, dedication and achievement. John Huyler, a New York City native and who later settled in Rye, was born in the West Village in 1846. His father, David Huyler, was a baker and John grew up over the family bakeshop. John started working in the bakeshop in 1863 and worked there for years before starting his own company.
According to family stories, John Huyler found old recipes for confections while doing work for a neighbor and became fascinated with the idea of making candy. He started experimenting and soon turned his hobby into a business. Huyler began making molasses candy and selling it out of his father’s storefront. Other retailers at first had no interest in his molasses, but when Huyler began a marketing campaign distributing samples along with literature about the candy-making process and health benefits of molasses, his old-fashioned molasses gained popularity. From his earliest business decisions, Huyler established himself as a talented marketer.
Huyler was eager to go out on his own and see what he could do with this passion for candy. He opened his first candy and ice cream store on the corner of 18th and Broadway in 1876 at 30 years old. Again, he made a critical marketing decision. Huyler put a candy puller in the store window, encouraging people to stop and watch the candy being made. This proved the candy’s freshness and was also novel and enticing, drawing customers into the store. He manufactured and sold the candy himself in the beginning, but soon hired his first employee, a young woman who worked the counter. Over the years, candy pullers in store windows became a symbol of quality and an adherence to an old-fashioned process, all owing to Huyler’s ingenuity.
Building on the initial success of that first store, Huyler opened three more stores and in 1881, incorporated the business as Huyler’s, Inc. In 1883, the company established a factory in a six-story building at 18th and Irving. Huyler was committed to quality and his candy soon set a high standard for the industry. Even in this new larger facility, he produced candy in small batches, which was more expensive but allowed him to have greater control over the quality of each product. Huyler guaranteed freshness and customer satisfaction, offering a refund or exchange to any unsatisfied customer. He believed that a happy customer was a repeat customer, and in a few short years, he had a large following of happy customers around the country.
Huyler also built a reputation as a model employer for his growing team. Soon he had apprentices, people who shared his love for candy who wanted to learn from the best. Milton Hershey came to work for Huyler as soon as he saved enough money to make a trip to New York. Hershey worked at Huyler & Company from 1883-1885, gaining an in-depth training in candy manufacturing and marketing before moving back to his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He soon founded Hershey’s Chocolate.
Family was central for Huyler, and while he was following his dream of building a candy business, he maintained balance and a sense of priorities. When his parents were aging, he cared for them while managing his business and starting his own family with is wife, Rosa Lee. Once his business in New York was established and he could find time to get away, Huyler invested in a summer home in Rye where he spent a great deal of his recreational time. He was a member of the Apawamis Golf Club as well as the American Yacht Club.
Huyler was a quiet man who, from early on in his career, made a decision to give back to society. He started by giving about 10% of his income each year to charities of importance to him, setting a high bar as a businessman and a philanthropist. Many of his charities were connected to the Methodist Church or other Christian organizations, where he held leadership positions and was honored within the church for his commitment to service. Starting in 1897, Huyler served on the board of the Mountain Retreat Association, an organization that provided summer conferences and retreats for Christian workers. Along with William H. Wannamaker, he funded a large-scale retreat in North Carolina called Montreat.
John Huyler died at his home in Rye on October 1st, 1910 at 64 years old. When he died, there were 54 Huyler Candy stores nationwide, 14 factories and over 2,000 employees. He left a significant portion of his fortune to multiple charities and left his candy business to his four sons. They tried to manage it for a few years, eventually selling it to other investors. The Huyler Candy brand survived for a few more decades, but no leader was ever able to bring it back to the great company that it was under John Huyler.
After Huyler’s death, Rosa, faced the decision of what to do with the family estate at Gramercy and Forest Avenues in Rye. Around the same time, two women started an organization to serve blind adults living in New York by offering them accommodations and services. They first rented a cottage in Rye to serve as a vacation home for blind men and women. In 1926, Vacation Camp and Dormitory for the Blind was incorporated and purchased the Huyler estate. The organization was very progressive for the time in that it aimed to help people with a disability become independent. Blind adults, often previously overlooked by society, were now encouraged to develop skills and find employment or start businesses. In the 1950s, Vacation Camp for the Blind moved upstate to a larger property, and in 2004, the Huyler estate was demolished to build new homes for Rye residents.
While his candy business did not endure over time, John Huyler leaves behind a legacy of business and service. This summer, if you visit an old-fashioned candy store or ice cream parlour and feel a wave of nostalgia, remember John Huyler and the dream he built on hard work and molasses.
Interested in the sources behind this story? Contact the Rye Historical Society for more information about John Huyler. Contact Rye Historical Society