For decades, the house at 220 W. Minnehaha Parkway was known as the Milky Way House.
The classic Tudor revival residence was built on the hill overlooking the parkway in 1926 by owner/contractor Ella Pendergast. When it was completed, Pendergast sold the Minnehaha house to Franklin C. Mars, a young entrepreneur who later became the owner of one of the world’s leading candy companies.
Ella’s second son, Raymond Pendergast, was a creative man, but instead of focusing on the building trades like his contractor mother, Ella, and his architect brother, Jack, he became enamored with candy and formed the Pendergast Candy Company around 1916. The small business eventually located its factory and shop at 2516 Nicollet Ave., now the home of the Jamaican restaurant Pimento.
Minneapolis was a hub of candy activity in the early part of the 20th century. The city had access to sugar beets, fresh clean water, a major railroad hub and an abundance of European workers familiar with the trade.
The Pendergast Candy Company’s main innovation was the development of a whipped marshmallow-like filling for its chocolate truffles and bars. Raymond Pendergast had created the unusual candy center almost by accident but soon it would become known as the “Minneapolis Nougat.” Pendergast’s best-selling brands were sold as Fat Emma and Pie Face.
Previous retail candies were mostly hard sugar, soft taffy or solid chocolate. The soft whipped creamy nougat center, although radically different, proved to be very popular. However, there was a major issue with the product: the instability of the soft candy on the retail shelf, particularly in the summer months, and during transportation.
One of the local companies that succeeded in overcoming these stability issues was owned by Franklin C. Mars. The Mar-O-Bar company’s namesake candy bar, released around 1922, was followed in 1923 by the Milky Way, named by Mars’ son, Forrest, after a popular soda fountain milkshake.
Born in Pope County, Minnesota, in 1883, Franklin Mars had learned to make candy in his mother’s kitchen after he contracted polio and could no longer attend school or work. Mars later moved south to Minneapolis, married twice, and then ventured west to Tacoma, Washington, where he tried his hand in the area’s fledgling candy industry.
Unfortunately, by 1914, his business went bankrupt, and the Mars family moved back to Minneapolis. This time, his determination to be in the candy game yielded success, and around 1920 he “discovered” a new ingredient — the Minneapolis Nougat. According to the candy company’s website, Mars established a line of chocolate confections — “Patricia Chocolates,” named after his daughter — in a factory location known as the Nougat House at 718 Washington Ave. N. The Mar-O-Bar company was growing.
Evidently the Pendergasts did not bear Mars too much ill will, because Ella Pendergast sold the Minnehaha Parkway house to Mars in 1926. His mother-in-law, Mary Alice Zelisch, and a maid also occupied the house. (At the same time, Raymond Pendergast lived just blocks away at 230 Valley View Place, in a home built by his sister, Florence Lentz.)
Mars’ success, just before the Great Depression, put him in position to survive those difficult years, and in 1929 he moved both his business and family to Chicago. Rather than sell his home, he gave the Minnehaha home to Zelisch to enjoy.
Unlike Mars, Pendergast marketed not only its own brands but also outstate names like Elmer’s Chocolates of New Orleans. However, in November 1928, just before the Christmas holiday rush, the Pendergast factory on Nicollet suffered a major setback when fire destroyed most of the building and inventory. The loss was over $65,000, a huge sum for those times.
Undaunted, Pendergast tried another tactic. Because his candy bars could not be relied upon to survive shipping long distances, Pendergast decided to negotiate with confectioners in Milwaukee, Winnipeg, Chicago and Boston instead of building multiple factories in larger markets. Those local partner factories would make and market his brands in return for a cut of the sales.
The Minneapolis Pendergast factory relocated to 324 N. 1st St. in Minneapolis until it was sold to the owner, F.A. Martoccio, of the Hollywood Candy Company of Jordan, Minnesota, around 1929. Martoccio was successful in developing a synthetic coating to surround the nougat and marketed his version of the Minneapolis Nougat as the Hollywood bar. He, too, would eventually move his business out of state in 1938.
After selling the factory, Raymond Pendergast took on a new role as a traveling salesman, promoting his brands through other candy wholesalers in East Coast cities. In 1929, after adopting three boys from a Chicago orphanage, the Pendergast family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The 1930 census listed the Pendergasts living alongside several other candy producers. Harrisburg was merely miles from another major chocolatier of that area — the Milton Hershey Company.
By the end of World War II, Raymond Pendergast was back in Minneapolis, and in 1946 he launched a whole new company in a new industry. Timesavers, Incorporated manufactured commercial building, sawing and sanding machinery for the lumber trades. The company is still operating in Maple Grove, Minnesota.
Raymond Pendergast eventually retired to Arizona, where he died in 1969.
Franklin Mars enjoyed his great success briefly and died at age 50, in 1934, from heart-related problems. Eventually his remains were returned to Lakewood Cemetery, where they were interred in a custom granite mausoleum. Forrest Mars continued running the privately held corporation until his death in 1999 when he, too, was interred at the Lakewood tomb.
Though Franklin Mars left Minneapolis in 1929, his widowed mother-in-law, Mary Zelisch, continued residing at the Minnehaha home, affectionately known as the Milky Way House. Zelisch happily handed out Milky Way candy bars on Halloween until she passed away in 1938.
Kathy Kullberg is a local historian dedicated to illuminating the lives of Minneapolis’ memorable residents, architects and builders and their contributions to the city’s past and present.