116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A Day Away: Your sweet tooth deserves a day trip to Wilton Candy Kitchen in Eastern Iowa
Stars, tourists, locals step back in time at longtime confectionery
WILTON — History is being preserved in the sweetest way in Wilton.
Lynn and Brenda Ochiltree have been scooping up ice cream, often shaken and stirred into malts and shakes, as well as creating soda pop phosphates flavored with homemade syrups and serving up sandwiches in the Wilton Candy Kitchen full time since 2019.
They actually bought the business in November 2015 to save Wilton’s oldest building from the wrecking ball, and in 2016, the husband-and-wife team reopened the business for a full summer of serving anyone and everyone screaming for ice cream.
If you go
What: Wilton Candy Kitchen
Where: 310 Cedar St., Wilton
Hours: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 1 to March 31; then 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Treats: Ice cream specialties, sundaes, malts, shakes; soda phosphates flavored with homemade syrups; homemade chocolate syrup; grilled sandwiches and more; retro candies and toys; Wilton Heritage Museum in the backroom
To get there: From Cedar Rapids: 56.6 miles via I-380 south to I-80 east, then Exit 271 south to Wilton for 4 miles. From Iowa City: 31.6 miles via I-80 east to Exit 271.
They were living in Winterset at the time, where Lynn owned a funeral home from 1996 to 2019. After selling that business, he moved back to his hometown of Wilton with Brenda, a Shellsburg native, and their son, Christian, now 14. Lynn and Brenda have been working side by side in the Candy Kitchen every day since then.
It wasn’t a hard sell for Brenda, now 51.
“I believe in him and this passion that he has for everything,” she said. “It’s really inspiring.”
She likes “the joy that people have when they come in, whether they’ve been here before with their grandparents or parents — or the excitement they have when they walk in and they’ve never been here before. To me, it’s happiness.”
She also strives to have their employees, especially the younger ones, learning history as they work.
“History is important,” she said. “You have to know where you came from before you know where you’re gonna go.”
The Candy Kitchen is a slice of history worth saving, according to Lynn, 53, who majored in history and political science at Simpson College in Indianola, and has more than 200,000 pieces of his hometown’s history in his personal collection.
Some of it is in the Wilton Heritage Museum in the backroom at the Candy Kitchen, along with other people’s contributions of historic items. He helped establish the nonprofit Wilton Archives to maintain, grow and display the memorabilia, and the group is raising funds to build a history museum on the empty lot next to the Candy Kitchen. For more information, message them at facebook.com/WiltonCandyKitchenWiltonIowa or email email@example.com.
Try the Brooke Shields or Gregory Peck specials at Wilton Candy Kitchen
The Wilton Candy Kitchen is a little off the beaten path, but not so far off Interstate 80 in Cedar and Muscatine counties that it goes unnoticed. Sixty percent of the retro soda shop’s business comes from outside of Iowa, Lynn noted.
“Last year, we had the doors swing about 35,000 times,” he added.
Want to eat like a movie star?
Try the Brooke Shields Special: grilled tuna sandwich and a hot fudge pecan sundae. That’s what she had in 1991. Or the Gregory Peck Special: grilled cheese and a chocolate soda. That’s what he ordered in 1995 en route from Joliet, Ill., to an appearance at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. His father operated a soda fountain in La Jolla, Calif., according to his producer, Dennis Brown, who has stopped at the Candy Kitchen three times over the years.
Shields came there at the invitation of Thelma Nopoulos, who was an extra in “An American Love,” a film Shields was shooting in the Quad Cities.
The Wilton Candy Kitchen has drawn politicians, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and longtime Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, as well as residents from across the United States.
“When 10 o'clock comes with our official hours that are posted, we never know who's going to walk through the door, whether it be somebody from New York or Los Angeles,” Lynn said. “Just the other day, we had some people from Michigan.”
The shop remains a “big draw” for customers from Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Quad Cities, he added. But they also have “regulars” from New Jersey, as well as Midwest diners from Chicago to Sioux City, St. Louis to Minneapolis, and last year, they welcomed visitors from Florida, Georgia and Texas, too.
Thelma Nopoulos, who died April 29, 2020, gets the credit not only for spreading the word, but for spearheading the effort to have the ice cream and candy shop named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
She worked at the shop with her husband, George, for 73 years, and declared it “the oldest ongoing confectionery ice cream parlor in the world,” which is written on a sign in the lot next to the shop. As a “history purist,” Lynn isn’t sure that claim is wholly accurate, but he does think it’s the oldest one in the state, and he applauds Thelma’s gumption.
“Thelma was tenacious in any endeavor that she was involved in, whether it was promoting people to give to United Way in Wilton, or whether it was getting the governor to come here on multiple occasions,” he said.
”She was tenacious at best, and she promoted the store in many ways. I'd never met someone who can get the (Associated Press) to run stories like she could. In fact, when George died, the AP picked up this story, and I believe is his obituary ran in the London Times and in the Los Angeles Times.“
History of Wilton, Iowa
Visitors will find lots of history sprinkles inside the menu and by chatting with Lynn.
Franklin Butterfield founded the town — lying 56.6 miles southeast of Cedar Rapids and 31.6 miles east and south of Iowa City — in 1855, and the Candy Kitchen structure was built in 1856, most likely as a general store. R.A. McIntyer turned it into a confectionery in 1860. It housed the post office from 1877 to 1893, and around 1900, the first soda fountain mechanism was installed.
Gus Nopoulos, a Greek immigrant, spotted a “for rent” sign in the window in 1909 while attending the Wilton Fair, and in 1910, he and his business partner, Nick Parrish, had it the Candy Kitchen up and running. It’s been going strong ever since.
Nopoulos’ sons, George and Leo, were the next generation to own the shop, and George became the sole owner in 1947. He married Thelma Soteros in 1949, who began working at the shop when she was 10. George worked there even longer. He died June 14, 2015, at age 95, and according to his obituary in Gazette archives, he started working at the shop when he was 6, earning him the title of “The Candy Man.”
After he died, Thelma was ready to give up the soda shop, telling Lynn that she would probably just tear it down. Lynn asked her how much she wanted for it, and she replied $1 million. He laughed. Not having that kind of money lying around, he got her to come down in price to $149,000.
“That was just a token of what it was really worth, as far as the sentimental value,” he said.
He kept everything the way Thelma had it, including the 1939-40 milk shake mixers, 1951 soda fountain, 1927 soda counter, 1930 bar stools, 1933 neon signs, 1922 booths and 1940s cash register. Even the handwriting on the mirrors is Thelma’s. In another nod to history, Ochiltrees have their employees count back change to customers, as Thelma did.
“It's kind of hard some days when they're really, really busy. Even I slip up sometimes,” Lynn said, “but I really do tell them that it's a lost art and it’s reminiscent — and it mirrors our historical presence.”
“Of course, if Thelma Nopoulos was here, you would get reprimanded if you didn’t count your change back. So I have always have the ghost of Thelma knocking at my door.
“Thelma was definitely a stickler for doing things right. And so we try really hard to give people a good experience and to make sure that it's correct and that we're friendly and that we're giving them the attention they need. In this day and age where customer service is waning or dead in some places, we try really hard to give people good service.”
And while they did shut their doors from March 15 to May 15, 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they came back, they actually were busier than the summer before.
“I think people were exploring their backyards,” Lynn said. “We're really grateful for all of our local people.”
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