Another instalment in our weekly summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
What goes with a sugar waffle? Residents of the Fort Erie area know it’s a lollipop followed by some local loganberry juice. These were the time-honoured snacks at the beloved Crystal Beach Amusement Park, which opened in 1888 as a venue for itinerant preachers and devotional music, and was redeveloped two years later as a carnival-style attraction, drawing crowds from both sides of the border.
The concessions were the brainchild of George C. Hall, who rose from hawking peanuts in 1901 to buying the park in 1924. In 1902, he started making Hall’s Original Suckers, a lollipop that came in five flavours: butterscotch, coconut, hot cinnamon (the overwhelming favourite), lemon, and peanut.
Sometime later, he added sugar waffles to the menu, making them with a daisy-shaped iron mould he heated in oil, dipped in batter, then returned to the oil to finish frying. Waffles like these are traditional Christmas fare in Scandinavian countries (where they’re known as struva) and can be found at carnivals in the American Midwest. Similar confections are popular in many other countries, too, including Iran, Malaysia, and Turkey.
Nonetheless, for generations of upstate New Yorkers and southern Ontarians, Crystal Beach was the only place to get sugar waffles. Hall eventually handed his business down to his son, Edward, who in turn passed it on to his son, Bob, who ran the park until it closed in 1989, shutting down the waffle supply.
Thankfully, one Bob Steckley became a food manager at Crystal Beach in 1985. “It was my job to mix the sugar waffle batter every morning,” he says. “They wanted to keep the recipe secret; when the park closed, I was working elsewhere and had the recipe, and kind of thought I might do something with it.”
- Beaver tales from Bytown: The story behind Ottawa’s favourite pastry
- Hogtown on a bun: How peameal bacon became Toronto’s signature food
- Home is where the butter tart is
In 1990, Steckley was running a small restaurant in the town of Ridgeway, Ontario, and he tested the market for sugar waffles. “It went gangbusters,” he says. “We had people coming from as far as Hamilton and outside Buffalo—about an hour away on both sides of the Peace Bridge. And they were getting bags—they didn’t just get two. We just couldn’t keep up with the demand.”
It didn’t take long for Steckley to close his restaurant and open the Crystal Beach Candy Co., which now ships about 10,000 waffles a week during peak summer season to locations up to 80 kilometres from the border on either side. They’re still made 20 at a time on just five moulds that hold four waffles each. (“Everybody thinks there’s a machine, and you push a button and waffles come pouring out. I wish there was!” he laments.)
In 2001, Steckley bought the original Hall’s sucker equipment from Bob Hall. “We’re using the same machine that George Hall Sr. bought in 1912,” he says. The recipe hasn’t changed either, although there are some new flavours, such as sour apple.
He completed the Holy Trinity of Crystal Beach concessions in 2012: “The main loganberry company got bought out; we ended up buying a recipe and working on it, and in 2013 we started the Crystal Beach Bottling Co.,” Steckley says.
“The park really was a magical place. When we first started, I had people telling me, ‘Your business is going to fade out as memories of the park fade away,’ but now we’ve got kids who weren’t born when the park was open but got hooked through their parents,” he adds. “We like to say we’re keeping the Crystal Beach memories alive.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.