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All Over The Map: Mountain Bars still stand tall in the Northwest

If you haven’t picked up your Halloween candy yet, you may want to consider the historic Mountain Bar. It’s been made in Pierce County for more than a century, and it once had a name that was much more geographically specific, and considered by some to be controversial.

Mountain Bars are a fixture in the candy aisle at pretty much any Bartell Drugs in the Puget Sound area. A visit earlier this week to a North Seattle location of the recently-sold local retailer revealed a good supply of all three flavors of the egg-shaped and roughly egg-sized confection: original vanilla, cherry, peanut butter.

Not familiar with the Mountain Bar? This could make you an outlier around here, and vulnerable to being easily called out by longtime locals at some future casual discussion about favorite Northwest products.

Case in point: a social media post from Thursday about Mountain Bars. It drew hundreds of comments, including memories of parents and grandparents’ love for Mountain Bars; attestations of the obvious superiority of several commenter’s favorite flavors; and even one amateur rendition of an old Mountain Bar jingle.

“What’s in the middle of a Mountain Bar?,” sang a dedicated KIRO listener from Edgewood. “Hundreds of chocolate and peanuts!”

That jingle, the listener wrote in an email accompanying the recording, was a fixture on TV commercials shown during the old “Brakeman Bill” kids’ program in the 1960s on Channel 11 from Tacoma.

Mountain Bars date back even further than that, all the way back to 1915, and like that long-ago TV friend of Crazy Donkey, they, too, originated in Tacoma.

And Mountain Bars are still made in the first and only place they were ever made – the Brown & Haley factory on East 26th Street in Tacoma. The bars are sold in stores in Washington, Idaho, Western Montana, Oregon and Northern California, and shipped directly to individuals all over the United States.

“Everything is still made in that one factory in Tacoma,” said Kathi Rennaker of Brown & Haley – who are also the makers of world-famous Almond Roca.

“We’ve added on to that building seven times,” Rennaker continued. “We took over [an old shoe factory there] in 1918, and every piece of Roca, every Mountain Bar in the entire world is right out of that historic factory.”

“We currently produce 100,000 Mountain Bars in an eight-hour shift,” Rennaker said. “We make about four million pounds of Mountain Bars per year.”

Rennaker also told KIRO Radio that “Mountain Bar” wasn’t the candy’s original name.

When the original vanilla-filled version of the bar debuted in 1915, the label was adorned with an illustration of a snowy peak, and said, simply, “Mount Tacoma.” As incredible as it seems, Rennaker also says that there were variations of the candy label around that same time that said “Mount Tahoma.” In those days, civic leaders in the City of Destiny were still battling with Seattleites and hoping to convince the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the name of Mount Rainier to Mount Tacoma or Mount Tahoma – which is what many believe is more true to what Indigenous people called the state’s tallest Cascade peak before Captain Vancouver named it after an old friend.

Details aren’t clear, but it may have been that Brown & Haley wanted to step away from the controversy by switching to the more generic name – for the candy bar, that is – that still remains in use. Rennaker says that before the 1923 change, the company even went so far as to create a label for the Seattle market calling the candy “Mount Rainier.”

Rennaker says Brown & Haley maintains an archive with examples of every label they ever produced, but that staff were not able to track down any examples of old Tacoma, Tahoma, or Rainier labels.

In addition to the three current flavors, there have been a handful of “limited edition” flavors over the years, including raspberry, coconut, cappuccino and mint. Rennaker says that, based on sales figures, different regions of Washington show distinct preferences for specific flavors.

“[In] Western Washington, peanut butter is the number one seller,” Rennaker said. “[In] Eastern Washington, cherry is the number one seller.”

Maybe it’s because peanut butter Mountain Bars are something of an upstart, having been introduced in 1972, while cherry Mountain Bars – originally known as a “Cherry Bounce” – date to at least the 1920s.

Is this yet another example of the painful east-west divide in the Evergreen State – pitting cherry originalists against unshelled peanut progressives?

No, says Kathi Rennaker.

“I think there’s more of a history and tradition with the flavors versus any kind of political reason,” she said.

Rennaker shared one more tasty morsel of Mountain Bar history: There was yet another flavor that was sold only at the Brown & Haley factory store, but that’s no longer available because of updates to manufacturing equipment. This version was just chocolate, with no vanilla, cherry, or peanut butter filling; it was a byproduct of a now-abandoned production process. When first working to produce a batch of bars, the manufacturing line would output numerous “plain” Mountain Bars that had no filling.

And if Rennaker gets any trick-or-treaters in this year of COVID-19, what will she be handing out?

“We’ve set up an 18-foot Mountain Bar launch from my house,” she said, and she’ll be operating it from an upstairs room fully stocked with a decent supply of all three flavors.

“I’ll be launching them through the second story of my house out into our driveway,” she said.

In the past, Rennaker has had as many as 200 trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

“It’s fun, because the kids come up to get their candy, and then the parents realize what it is,” she said. “And they usually ask, ‘Do you have a peanut butter one, or do you have a cherry one?,’ for themselves.”

“They remember Mountain Bars,” Rennaker said, “and they want one as well.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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