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A Small Town Is Proud of Its Dum-Dums

This world can seem dismal at times, so an unanticipated burst of delight, even for only a moment or two, can brighten things.

People in Bryan, Ohio, a town of some 8,700 in the northwest corner of the state, understand this and decided to do something about it. Bryan isn’t a tourist destination, but many people pass speedily through each year without having planned it. Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, which runs between Chicago and Washington, and its Lake Shore Limited, which runs between Chicago and New York, roll through town.

For years the only way most passengers knew where they were was to glance at the municipal water tower, south of the tracks. It was austere and kind of boring: “Bryan, Ohio,” in black letters. But when the city-owned water tower’s big tank was due for its once-every-15-years paint job, local officials came up with an idea: Why not try to cheer people up?

Thus, train passengers today can be excused for reacting with a start if they haven’t been through Bryan lately. What are those beautiful, colorful objects on the water tower? Are they tulips in glorious bloom? No.

As travelers get closer, they may break into grins of recognition. Those figures on the tower? Dum-Dums.

Yep—the humble lollipops, their ball-shaped tops wrapped in crinkly, waxy paper, that for almost a century have been a part of American childhoods. They now stand sentry, as lovingly painted by artist Eric Henn, on the water tower’s tank. The legs of the tower are painted to resemble lollipop sticks. The riser pipe is where the name of the city appears.

“When I was growing up, I would always look forward to going to the bank with my parents, because I knew the teller would give me a Dum-Dum,” said Mayor Carrie Schlade. Millions of grown-ups all over the country can doubtless identify with that: Dum-Dums, the ultimate penny candies, were the go-to giveaways at doctors’ offices, banks, small businesses and barber shops, where they calmed nervous children getting their first haircuts. “Dum-Dums meant ‘time for fun,’ ” Ms. Schlade said.

True enough. But why would Bryan decide to put them on the water tower?

Small-town pride. There are 12 million Dum-Dums manufactured every day of every workweek, and each of them comes off a 24-hour, three-shift production line in Bryan—some

three billion a year. I asked Kirk Vashaw, CEO of the town’s family-owned Spangler Candy Co., how many of the people who eat those three billion suckers have any idea where the Dum-Dums came from. “Maybe almost none,” he said.

That has always been the thing about Dum-Dums: They’re just there, like the sun and the moon and the air. But they come from somewhere, and now, like an echo of gentler times during these oft-troubled days, they beckon from the 400,000-gallon tank that looms above that somewhere’s railroad tracks. “Tell people to come visit us,” the mayor said. Sweetly.

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