Making Candy Canes at Nelson’s Candy Kitchen in Columbia State Historic Park, California

Nelson's Candy Kitchen, exterior sign, Columbia State Historic ParkNelson’s Candy Kitchen is the most delightful of several delightful businesses in Columbia, California. It’s worth a road trip any day, but especially during the holiday season.

You’ve never heard of Columbia? It was once the second largest city in California and almost became the state capitol. That was about 150 years ago when about a billion dollars worth of gold was still hiding in the ground here.

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Columbia State Historic Park in California

Columbia State Historic Park, CaliforniaToday, it’s a state park and national historic district, but people still live here. It’s a real town, always been, since the first gold miners worked their claims here as early as 1850. This is the real deal — nothing fabricated for tourists or reconstructed for a Hollywood set. This is how Columbia has always looked.

People on the streets of Columbia State Historic Park in California

Actually, the town was looking fairly shabby during the Great Depression. But since it had not completely dried up and blown away like many Old West mining towns, it became one of the Depression-era works projects to document the city’s history and clean up what was looking bad. By the 1940s, it had become a state park and later a National Historic District.

Would you like to know more about the California Gold Rush? Consider these books:


What To Do at Columbia State Historic Park

 Columbia is in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, not far from the Big Flat Entrance of Yosemite National Park. Even if you’ve not been here, there’s a good chance that you might have seen it on the big screen or some of your Old West TV shows. From the 1950s, it was used used as the setting for Death Valley Days, High Noon, The Cimarron Kid and The Lone Ranger. More recently, it was used in Little House on the Prairie and Radio Flyer with Elija Wood.

Mother and child panning for gold at Columbia State Historic Park in California.There are two hotels in the Columbia State Historic Park as well as a couple of cool restaurants. Just outside the historic district, you’ll find other dining and lodging options. With few exceptions, like a place for kids to learn how to pan for gold, these are businesses that operated here in the gold rush days.

Candy jars in an oldfashioned display counter at Nelson Candy CompanyWhich brings me to my favorite business — Nelson’s Candy Kitchen. Although the building dates to the 1850s, Nelson’s didn’t open until 1923 by a guy named Julius Nagel. However, a gold miner named Rex Nelson broke his arm and couldn’t work in the mines. Julius gave him a job sweeping floors, which you can do with one arm if you’re more coordinated than I am.

Antique marble candy table at Nelsons Candy CompanyA few years later, Rex bought the business and now the fourth generation of Nelsons is making all sorts of sweet treats. The tables here came from Philadelphia in the 1850s.

Throughout most of the year, visitors peer through the windows and watch as talented confectioners make things that I wouldn’t dare attempt in my kitchen.

Hard candy at Nelson's Candy Company in the Columbia State Historic Park in California.Many people make chocolate, caramels and other candies in their home kitchens, especially around the holidays, but not many people do hard candies. It’s just too hot and messy. So that’s why I was intrigued by the offer for people to register for a lottery that would allow them to get their hands sticky in the Nelson’s Kitchen by making candy canes in November and December.

We were there in June and the instructions said to put your name and contact information on a postcard and mail it to Nelson’s by Labor Day to be entered in the lottery. Sarah Nelson told me they get about 2,000 postcards, but based on the size of the kitchen and health and safety concerns, they can only accommodate about 15 people at a time and only on Saturday and Sundays during the holidays. That totals up to about 430 people who get to do this:

I didn’t mail a postcard, because I didn’t think we would be returning to California so soon, but maybe next year. And maybe it’s something you want to do. Even if you don’t go for the candy cane making experience around the holidays, a visit to Columbia State Historic Park is a great day or two in your visit to Yosemite and the Tuolumne County area. There are two other Nelson’s Candy Kitchen’s locations – one in Sonora and one in Murphy’s California, but this is the original.

For another destination that celebrates the holidays the old-fashioned way, let’s go to Colonial Williamsburg. Yes, the opposite side of the country, but that’s why we call it traveling.

These treats might not be handmade in a historic candy shop, but peppermint is always an appropriate candy to have on hand, especially for upset stomachs. And baking with peppermint is a must during the holidays. Remind me to share my Creme de Menthe brownie recipe with you sometime.