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It's all things fudge this weekend on Mackinac Island

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

More than a century ago, when Henry Francis Murdick arrived on Mackinac Island to create canvas awnings for the soon-to-open Grand Hotel, he became the first in a long line of confectioners who would help create the island’s biggest export: fudge.

Murdick, a sailmaker, also was a candy maker, and once operated a sweets shop in Mt. Clemens before relocating his business to Mackinac Island to tap its growing tourism industry. He opened Murdick’s Candy Kitchen on Main Street soon afterward.

Today, Murdick’s Fudge shops are among about a dozen fudge shops on the island, operated by various owners, including Detroit’s own Sanders Confectionery, a late-comer on the four-square-mile island, arriving in the 21st century.

Ryba’s Fudge Shop, which also traces its beginnings as a confectioner to Detroit, requires fudge makers to undergo a two-year apprentice.

While Mackinac candy makers did not invent fudge — its origins are a bit hazy — they helped perfect the concoction, and Mackinac Island-style fudge is a well-known confection across the country. Mackinac Island-style fudge shops dot northern Michigan, pop-up stands appear at Detroit and other auto shows, and there’s even a Murdick’s Fudge shop on Martha’s Vineyard. Thousands and thousands of fudge slices are sold each year.

“It’s a combination of things that makes fudge so popular,” says Heather Tamlyn, marketing director for Ryba’s Fudge Shop. “It’s creamy, smooth goodness but it’s also about memories. People remember getting fudge with parents or grandparents while visiting the island. It’s a generational thing that gets passed on. There’s an emotional attachment to it.”

Mackinac embraces this popular treat with a festival each year. The 2020 Fudge Festival takes place Friday (8/28) through Sunday (8/30) with live and virtual events. They include fudge making demonstrations, the reveal of a special new fudge flavor at May’s Candy Shop and an exploration of the history of fudge by Phil Porter, author of “Fudge: Mackinac’s Sweet Souvenir,” published in 2001.

“Fudge is something that is kind of unique to Mackinac and northern Michigan,” says Porter, who is also director of Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s really become synonymous with Mackinac and that makes it kind of special.”

The Fudge Festival is one of the few summer festivals in Michigan to occur during this summer of the pandemic. Like the island’s annual Lilac Festival, the event returns with a modified format with traditional and virtual experiences to enhance access and safety.

“Our members have worked overtime to make the 2020 Fudge Festival a fun, safe reality for fans on the island and beyond,” says Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism. “From implementing best practice safety measures and proliferating PPE to reformatting select events to offer a strong virtual experience, we are proud to bring this event to life again in spite of the uncertainty everyone has faced this year.”

Some events from past festivals have been canceled, most notably the annual cornhole tournament on the lawn at Mission Point Resort, Funday Sunday and family games at Windermere Point.

Fudge was likely among the original confections offered at Murdick’s first island candy shop and became a favorite among summer visitors. Over the years, Murdick’s and other fudge markers helped create the style and showmanship common in shops today.

Initially, Murdick’s demonstrated the fudge-making process on marble slabs at the back of the store. Some ingredients have changed over the years, but typically, sugar, cream, corn syrup, chocolate and flavoring are mixed in copper kettles and slowly brought up to temperature. Using wooden paddles, the fudge maker stirs the mix until it reaches maximum heat. The steaming concoction is then poured on a marble slab and kept in place with removable stainless steel bars. As the mixture cools, forming a creamy solid candy, the bars are removed and the paddle works begins.

Mackinac Island celebrates fudge annually.

Today, the fudge making process is essentially the same. The fudge maker finishes the product by creating a loaf and cutting the fudge into half-pound slices.

“It’s all about practice and repetition,” says Ed Turbin, who has been a fudge maker at Ryba’s for nearly four decades. “You can’t learn by watching. You have to get the paddle in your hand and it yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is pushing the fudge off the slabs onto the floor. It’s a point of honor that we don’t get it on the floor. But when you start, you’re a mess.”

Ryba’s Fudge Shop, which also traces its beginnings as a confectioner to Detroit, requires fudge makers to undergo a two-year apprentice.

“Quality is important,” Tamlyn says. “The apprentices train in the shop. They do the cooking and the other work on the marble slabs. If they’re making fudge, we might use it as a sample on the counter but we don’t sell their fudge until they finish their apprenticeship.”

Ryba’s set up shop on Mackinac in the 1960, joining others, including May’s, Murdick’s and Selma’s. Founder Harry Ryba is credited with tapping innovative marketing ideas that helped spur the lucrative industry to new heights, helping create “an indelible link between “Mackinac” and “Fudge,” Porter says.

Ryba relocated the fudge-making tables to the front windows “to make a spectacle of it,” Tamlyn says. The family-owned company also borrowed a Murdick’s innovation of using fans to spread the sweet aroma, this time out to the streets, to lure tourists. Harry Ryba also is credited with coining the term ‘fudgie,’ as a reference to the throngs of tourists who descend on northern Michigan each summer. 

For some, the appeal of fudge remains elusive.

“Maybe it’s better we don’t know,” Hygh says. “There are three things that have endured on the island since the 1880s: horses, fudge and travel to Mackinac. Fudge has been a mainstay since the building of the Grand Hotel.”

Mackinac Island Fudge Festival


Virtual and live events at fudge shops and other locations

Live fudge demonstration from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at Joann’s, Kilwin’s, May’s, Murdick’s, Ryba’s and Sanders.

Outdoor showing of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Fort Mackinac.

Complete list of festivities