Clara and Russell Stover

Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections
Clara Stover
Clara Stover, Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Russell Stover spent much of his boyhood on his grandfather’s Iowa farm, having moved there with his father and sisters after the death of his mother. Here Stover heard tales of his grandfather’s days as a forty-niner during the California Gold Rush, as well as stories of his grandfather’s brother, who had traveled West via wagon train to seek his fortune.

Clara Stover, born Clara Lewis in Oxford, Iowa, in 1882, was also raised on a farm, where her parents expected her and her three sisters to do the chores that would have fallen to the sons they never had. With doctors sometimes too distant to respond in time, Clara Stover’s grandmother was frequently called upon to deliver the babies of their community. As an adult Clara Stover exhibited this same spirit of self-reliance and willingness to acquire and apply skills to get things done. For his part, Russell Stover had absorbed his grandfather’s stories of huge risks taken to achieve big dreams. The mixture of these two ingredients would produce the historic business partnership now synonymous with a great box of chocolates.

Clara and Russell Stover first met as students in Iowa City, although they would not marry until becoming reacquainted several years later in 1911. The couple chased a big dream immediately, facing adversity and ultimate failure on a 580-acre wheat and flax farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. When heavy rains destroyed their crop, they became discouraged and gave up farming for good. Russell was hired by a candy company in Winnipeg.

After several years the Stovers returned to the U.S., where Russell worked for several large confectioners in Chicago and Des Moines throughout the 1910s, becoming increasingly knowledgeable about all stages of the candymaking process, from production to sale. While living in Chicago, he and Clara began trying their hand at producing candy themselves—Clara dipping chocolates herself in the kitchen of their small apartment, and Russell selling them on weekends to neighborhood druggists.

In 1921, the Stovers achieved a delirious moment of success before seeing a small fortune slip out of reach. Russell, who had studied chemistry at the University of Iowa, perfected and patented a process by which ice cream could be coated with chocolate without melting during the process. The resulting “Eskimo Pie” confection created a national sensation, and during the manic period that followed, Russell Stover was deluged with licensing agreements, buyout offers (some reportedly in the millions), imitators, lawyers, and lawsuits. When the whirlwind passed and sales declined, the Stovers ended up with a profit of only several thousand dollars.

It was enough seed money to start a business, however, and they established a small, homemade candy concern in Denver, Colorado: “Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies.” They had now learned enough about candy making and the pitfalls of the business world to set their company on a path of steady growth, building factories in Denver, then Kansas City in the mid 1920s. In 1931 the company moved its headquarters to Kansas City, and the next three decades found Clara and Russell Stover together at the helm of the company, increasing its annual output from 20,000 pounds of candy to 11 million.

At the time of Russell Stover’s death in 1954, the candy bearing his name was sold in 2,000 pharmacies and department stores nationwide, as well as 40 company-owned candy stores. Clara Stover remained at the head of the company for six years after the death of her husband. She died in Kansas City, where the couple’s grand home had become a landmark, in 1975.

The Stovers, beginning with their early farming venture in Canada, had been willing to dream big and risk bitter failure. After one fantastic near miss, they founded the candy company that endures today as a household name for quality sweets.

Acknowledgement: 

A previous version of this article appears on kchistory.org: http://www.kchistory.org/content/biography-bryce-b-smith-1878-1962-mayor...

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.