Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
arry and Ella Graeter came to Visalia in 1900, the same year that they were married in San Francisco. Exactly what brought the newlyweds here is unknown, but they were clearly a good match for the town. The pair quickly blended in, becoming active in civic and social life. Prior to coming to Visalia, Harry had worked in the restaurant business, so upon arrival, he gravitated to the food industry for work, although for a time he managed the Visalia Skating Rink. But it was clear that his heart was in food, and he worked for several confectionery shops making candy, which quickly earned him the title “Candy Man.”
By January 1910, Graeter was ready for the next step, so he bought Ed Farrow Jr.’s candy store at 109 N. Court St. He had big plans for the “tired” shop. He immediately began to remodel. He installed a new fountain made of marble and German silver, and changed the interior, creating a pergola effect.
After six months of construction, the Graeter’s Ice Cream Emporium & Confectionery Parlor opened, leaving no trace of the old shop. The Visalia Daily Times liked what it saw and likened it to the fancy shops in Los Angeles.
Of course, Graeter showcased his famous handmade candy, especially his signature fine chocolates. He hired Blondy Wilcox, an “expert mixologist” from Los Angeles, who knew how to make all of the latest soda fountain delights. Shortly after opening, he added lunches to his menu, and his shop quickly became known for its 25-cent “hot midday lunch” and California oyster cocktails.
Business was good, so in late 1911, he eliminated his small stationery section and added several more tables. He expected the Christmas holiday to be a good one for candy, so he had an estimated one ton of chocolates on hand.
By 1912, he added a dinner menu complete with steaks and chops.
Graeter never seemed satisfied and announced that he wanted to create the “most elaborate and extensive establishment in the valley.” In 1913, he introduced music to his shop and called the new feature “music with your meals.” Throughout the day, he supplied customers with “Orpheum circuit” songs and supplemented them with local singers performing live.
And still he had bigger ideas, but he found that they were limited by his small shop space. Luckily for him, a nearby competitor, Clinton Bevins, was selling his confectionery shop at 102 W. Main St., just around the corner from Graeter’s. He wasted no time in buying the business with valuable Main Street frontage and, by July 1914, workmen were gutting the newly acquired space, preparing it to become “the finest confectionery store in the San Joaquin Valley.”
In September, the new shop was finished and, like everything that Graeter did, it was amazing. The Times called the $22,000 remodeled shop the “finest confectionery and ice cream parlor … between Los Angeles and San Francisco.” No expense had been spared. Elegant was the only way to describe it, with blue and white painted walls and hanging hand-painted art pieces by a famous fresco painter from Chicago. The lighting consisted of two large gasoliers and a thousand candle-power gas bowl, which reportedly made it the best lighted shop in the state. The lighting was enhanced by numerous beveled French mirrors throughout. Everything was first rate, sparkling clean and beautiful.
Graeter was obviously pleased with his new shop and invited the public to attend his gala grand opening on Sept. 2, 1914. The printed program announced that “The remodeling of our kitchen has made it possible for us to give the best service and cater to the highest class
of dinner, luncheon and theatre parties at all times.”
But the program contained more — a personal message that revealed where the candy man’s heart truly was. He wrote, “The opening of this Palace of Sweets marks one of the greatest achievements in modern confectionery stores. It is done with a good will, kind fellowship and love for Visalia. Unqualified approval will be enthusiastically given to this store, which is opened for the greater service of the community and for the betterment of all,” and signed it, “Yours for eats, sweets and entertainment. H. Graeter.”
The list of opening night entertainers was as impressive as his shop. A full orchestra, six individual singers and an all-star chorus rounded out the evening. The amazing lineup of entertainers was a perfect way to introduce his new cabaret in town. The next year, dancing was introduced.
Less than two years after the gala grand opening, the town would be hit with a shocker. On April 21, 1916, obviously surprised, the Visalia Morning Delta delivered the bombshell news announcing “the purchase Wednesday evening by Mr. and Mrs. Garrison of the Graeter candy, soda, lunch rooms.…” The candy man was out of the restaurant business.
Just why he sold is unclear, but maybe the vineyard that he had been farming on South Court Street near his home was keeping him busy. His acreage of Thompson seedless grapes was producing well and earned him an envious reputation. Then again, the couple may have just wanted more time to travel.
Harry Graeter in about 1910.
In June, Harry and Ella announced an extended trip to the California coast and San Diego, immediately following a lengthy stay at California Hot Springs.
But even in retirement, Harry Graeter couldn’t ignore his sweet spot. When the Bof family owned and operated the Deluxe Bakery in town in the 1950s, they brought the candy man in to teach them the art of candy making.
The Graeters could have lived anywhere, but they chose to live in Visalia for the rest of their lives. Their bond to the community was strong. In 1957, Ella died at the age of 71 after a lengthy illness.
In 1960, Harry passed at the age of 85. Both rest at the Visalia Cemetery with suitable markers.
The neighborhood around their old home and vineyard on Court Street near Walnut Avenue also continues to be a lasting tribute. Even today, the subdivision is called Graeter Gardens.
The interior of Graeter’s, probably when it was on Main Street. Circa 1914
The printed grand opening program Sept. 2, 1914