History We Live In

To the kids of Council Bluffs, 724 Madison Ave. was the home of Arthur E. Dempsey, the “sugar stick man.”

The kids all called him the sugar stick man. He walked home every evening from his job at the Woodward Candy Co. with a brown paper bag full of stick candy to be shared with the young folks who waited for him at the neighborhood grocery store.

Arthur E. Dempsey was born in 1866 in London, Ontario, the son of Irish emigrants Sarah and Jeremiah Dempsey. He came to Council Bluffs in 1887.

Sarah Caffall was born in Salt Lake City in 1864 and came to Council Bluffs with her parents in 1868. She taught school for several years in Mondamin and in the Pierce Street School.

Arthur and Sarah were married in Council Bluffs in 1891. Arthur is listed in the 1893 city directory as a cigar maker at Duquette & Co., and in 1894 as a candy maker at John G. Woodward Co. They lived at several different addresses until 1907 when they purchased this beautiful home at 724 Madison Ave. where they raised two daughters and three sons.

Nels C. Larson, carpenter, built this house around 1888 in the Queen Anne style, characterized by its round tower with bell-shaped roof, patterns of fish scale shingles in the walls, a corner bay window with a sunburst in the peak of the roof and the ornate design in the front gable peak above the porch.

These architectural details are highlighted by shades of lavender and cream, painted in recent years by an artist.

Arthur Dempsey received seven patents for candy making machines which he invented during his years with the John C. Woodward Co. He retired at 80 years of age after serving 35 years as superintendent. The Dempseys moved to the smaller house next door — number 720 — around 1940 where their son James and his family had previously lived.

Arthur died on Nov. 20, 1957, and Sarah died 10 days later. The Dempseys are buried in Memorial Park Cemetery.

On Jan. 24, 1988, Zeph Telpner, CPA, published author and regular Nonpareil columnist, shared his memories of Arthur Dempsey. Tellpner tells the story best, in these excerpts from his column:

“When I was a boy, I always thought of him as ‘the sugar stick man.’ Most of the other kids in our block did, too. His real name was Arthur E. Dempsey and he lived at 724 Madison Ave.

“By 1932, he was already a superintendent at John C. Woodward & Co., known to natives of Council Bluffs as the Woodward Candy Co. Each evening, when the candy company closed, Mr. Dempsey would walk home. It was always about the same time, and about the same speed. Most of the neighborhood kids would wait for him in front of the Madison Grocery at the intersection of South First, Madison and Graham Avenue. In later years, I, too, was old enough to wait.

“During rain, snow or sunshine, he never disappointed us. He always carried a large, brown paper bag. The first of us to spot him always shouted to the others, ‘Here he comes. It’s the sugar stick man.’

“He’d give us that I-love-kids smile; pat a shoulder; tousle some hair, and call us by name. Then — the moment that we all waited for. Mr. Dempsey would reach into his brown paper sack and pull out sugar sticks for all of us.

“This was not just your ordinary sugar stick that he gave to us. It was a genuine gossamer, melt-in-your-mouth, wonderful, one-and-only sugar stick made only by the Woodward Candy Co., a treasure of Council Bluffs.

“I’ll never forget him. He was old when I was young. His voice was soft, and he wasn’t a big man. But there was something about him — something in his manner that told us that he loved kids, his job and the neighborhood.

“By the time I was promoted to fifth grade at Madison School, Mr. Dempsey had retired. World War II had started by then, and most of the parents had jobs. They were able to spare a penny or two so that we could buy our own candy. But, sugar was rationed, and there weren’t any of the Woodward candy sticks for us to buy.

“I didn’t see Mr. Dempsey very often after he retired. By then, his son Jimmy Dempsey and family lived next door to his house. I often played with his grandson, Jerry. We were always too busy to find time to see the old man.

“After my discharge when the Korean Conflict ended, I saw Arthur Dempsey again. Every day he and Sarah, his wife of 65 or more years, walked down Madison Avenue and South First Streets to downtown Council Bluffs ...

“Never have I seen two people so much in love. Their hair was white, and their faces bore the wrinkles of dignity, but they still held hands. They showed concern for one another. They remained friendly and good-natured toward all of us ... Arthur Dempsey was the sugar stick man. He brought sweetness into our lives.”

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