'Fudge Ladies' keep sweet Cranberry tradition alive since 1950
Even when Shirley Ann Mahr is the only one in her kitchen, she is never alone.
A photograph of Elvesta Breckenridge, her best friend who died in 2008, hangs above the stove. Mahr sifts through a stack of hand-written recipes as if they are love letters.
“As I'm making fudge, I'm saying, ‘Vesta, what did you do that you're not telling me?'” she said with a laugh. “I feel a connection to her when I'm in here.”
Twenty-five years ago, Mahr purchased Breckenridge's Freedom Road fudge stand for $1 and a handshake.
Built in 1950 from the remnants of an old chicken coop, the structure is a Cranberry Township landmark. But the sweets that fill it are even more legendary.
Open on weekends from Mother's Day to winter's first cold snap, “Nana's Fudge” keeps local chocoholics — and travelers in need of a sugar rush — happy.
Mahr, 66, whips up the goodies in her basement kitchen, dubbed the Fudge Room, which is located across the street from the stand. The space resembles a small-scale version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Jars of gumdrops, sprinkles, jellybeans, nuts, mints, M&Ms, caramels, candy corn, marshmallows and other ingredients line the shelves and fill the pantry.
All of the fudge — vanilla, chocolate and peanut butter to cherry, pistachio, coconut, and more — is made on the same 1930s-era Magic Chef stove that her predecessor used.
Breckenridge, who lived to be 99, spent decades collecting fudge recipes from friends, family members and cookbooks, then added her own special touch to each one. The fudge she sold helped the single mother raise two sons.
When Mahr bought the stand for a buck in 1989, she intended to use it to sell her handcrafted quilts and crocheted items.
“The people said, ‘We don't want that. We want fudge!'” she said, pounding her fist on the table.
“So I decided to go home and try it.”
Breckenridge's directions often call for “a pinch of this” or “a dab of that” — unscientific measurements that took Mahr a long time to master.
She still makes mistakes, but sometimes they end up being her greatest triumphs. When one candy concoction went awry last year, she simply topped the toffee-like creation with chocolate and nuts and it became her biggest seller to date.
Although she is faithful to Breckenridge's recipes, Mahr also enjoys new challenges. Customers, especially children, give her some of the best ideas.
Upon the recommendation of her great-grandchildren, 4-year-old twin girls, she now makes fudge-dipped SpongeBob Squarepants Rice Krispy Treats.
“They have no qualms about telling me what to make,” Mahr said.
Friend and neighbor Gloria Tubridy serves as the fudge stand's unofficial taste-tester.
“Shirley has a great sense of experimentation,” she says. Mahr's turtle, a combination of chocolate, caramel and pecans, is Tubridy's favorite treat; one she allows herself to indulge in frequently.
“Who can resist?” she said.
Right now, snow blankets the ramshackle fudge stand, but, come spring, it will teem with life and laughter.
“It's a meeting place,” Mahr said. “In the summer, we put chairs out there and people sit and talk. Everybody has a tale about the fudge stand; their parents brought them and now they're bringing their children. It's a continuous, generational thing.”
Time and the elements have taken a toll on the framework, which is now leaning to one side. The property has been for sale since Breckenridge's death.
Once the land sells, Mahr hopes the new owners will allow her to keep selling fudge from the site.
A petition is already circulating to help save the piece of local history.
Roy Wagner, president of Cranberry Township Historical Society, says the stand does not meet National Historic Landmark qualifications, although a Pennsylvania History and Museum Commission marker is a possibility.
“(Mahr) did offer to donate the stand to CTHS when Vesta's property went up for sale several years ago, and if it couldn't remain on the property post-sale, we thought about moving it to a better location, possibly the municipal center grounds,” Wagner said.
Although she has no intention of retiring any time soon, Mahr is always on the lookout for the next “Fudge Lady,” whether it's an individual, a preservation organization or the township government.
“Vesta paid it forward to me,” she says, “and I'll pay it forward to someone else to keep her name alive.”
Kristy Locklin is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.