Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Mandy Conrad – The Maple Sugar Candy Lady

by David Parmer

As the Baltimore and Ohio and Coal and Coke passenger trains screeched to a stop at the Orlando depot for about an hour’s layover so passengers could change trains and for a luggage transfer, a plaintive cry greeted the train travelers, "Maple sugar candy, please buy some maple sugar candy". A small, thin, wispy haired woman in a simple, home- made dress, wearing scuffed, well-worn shoes repeated her melancholy appeal in a high pitched voice to the hopefully hungry passengers, "Please buy some maple sugar candy."
A home-made basket, a tea towel covering the contents, hung from the arm of the lady as she moved slowly from one traveler to another, offering her nickel pieces of maple sugar candy for sale. Some passengers accepted the offer, perhaps more from pity than from an urge for sweet treats. Dropping her nickel into her dress pocket after a sale, Mandy continued to move unobtrusively among the throng, taking care to stay out of the way of uninterested travelers, hoping to earn a few coins from more willing passengers.

Above, to the left, is a generic photo of maple sugar candy.
To the right, Mandy's home is circled.

As the passenger train moved slowly out the Orlando station, Mandy Conrad left the depot as quietly as she had come, returning to her home, formerly owned by the Oldakers, on the bank above the Clover Fork Road, a short distance away.

Mandy Conrad, whose given name was Amanda, was born in 1874, the daughter of Steward L. Riffle and Abigail Blake Riffle. Her father, Steward, whose name was sometimes spelled Stewart, was his wife Abigail’s cousin. His father was a Riffle, his mother a Blake; her father was a Blake, and her mother a Riffle. On Clover Fork in the mid 1800s, most all of the families were either Blakes or Riffles, each very large families; therefore, there was little chance of marrying someone of a different last name.

Mandy married Ervin Conrad, the son of John B. Conrad and Mary Ann Riffle Conrad. Mary Ann’s father was Benjamin Riffle, the son of Jacob I. and Francena (Blake) Riffle, both of whom were also closely related to Mandy’s parents. Mandy’s marriage to Ervin resulted in a further narrowing of the gene pool, and as a result affected their offspring. Mandy’s first child, a daughter, Forest Gladys was born blind and died in 1925 at age 25, Bill Stokes, a son, died in 1931 at age 27, Carl Ray, was born blind and deformed and died at aged 24 in 1936. Mandy’s son, Opha, was born in 1907. Unfortunately, "Oph", as he was called, was also born deformed and with a grave mental deficiency. Mandy’s youngest son, Cary, born in 1909, was also born deformed and with an equally significant mental impairment. None of these children would ever live to be anything other than a child, nor able to speak, walk, stand, or sit unassisted.

In the days of Mandy’s generation, there was little in the way of social services to assist with severely mentally handicapped and physically deformed children. It would be Mandy’s responsibility to care of her children as long as she could do so. Of course, there was an alternative available to Mandy. Weston State Hospital , the state hospital for the insane, was available to house children like Mandy’s afflicted offspring. Mandy, however, sold her maple sugar candy, earning nickels, to help keep her children at home.

In 1915, Mandy gave birth to her final child, Exie, who was born normal in all respects. Exie lived a normal childhood in Orlando, attended school in Orlando and high school in Burnsville, and did well, had friends, and although poor as many other people in Orlando were, made the most of her situation.

Not long after Exie’s birth, Ervin Conrad, Mandy’s husband, left their home, leaving Mandy with the sole responsibility to care for the handicapped children, as well as young Exie.

Over the ensuing years, Mandy became a regular fixture on the depot platform in Orlando selling her maple sugar candy. Regular train passengers through Orlando became used to seeing Mandy and bought her maple sugar candy. When sap wasn’t flowing from the maple trees, Charlie Knight gave Mandy refined sugar and maple flavoring, to make an artificial maple sugar candy to sell to the train passengers. Mandy did the best she could in candy making to provide a meager living for her family.

When the passenger train traffic in Orlando dwindled in the 1930s, so did Mandy’s ability to earn enough to keep her family together. As both Mandy and her sons became older it was even more difficult to keep her family together. She had to make the difficult decision to have her sons placed in Weston State Hospital. To be close to her sons, Mandy left Orlando and moved to Weston. Her younger son Cary died in the State Hospital in 1943, and the older child Oph died there in 1953.

Mandy preceded her son Oph in death in 1949 at the age of 75. The maple sugar candy lady and her children were buried in the Riffle Run Cemetery at Burnsville.

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