Neighbors bittersweet over plant closing

Most Mansfield residents say they’ll miss tantalizing aromas

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 6, 2010

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MANSFIELD — Sitting on the wooden stoop outside her house on a recent day, 43-year-old Jennifer Drain closed her eyes, drew a long breath, and sighed.

“Mmmm, that’s nice,’’ she said. “I’m going to miss that.’’

It’s a common thought in this town, where for more than a century the hulking brick factory has bathed it in a pervasive scent of roasting chocolate. Some, like Drain, love it. Some don’t. But it is a constant fact of life, one that can influence real estate decisions and diets, and pretty much everyone thinks of it as the smell of home. So when locals learned late last month that ADM Cocoa will close the plant late this summer, there was a wave of nostalgia.

“I can smell it like it’s right next door,’’ said Nancy Melbers, a 61-year-old who lives about 400 yards away. “When it’s really strong, all I can think of is brownies.’’

The factory has been churning out chocolate since 1903, when renowned chocolate manufacturer Walter Lowney moved the company from Boston, then a candy-making hub. Founded in 1883, Lowney’s Chocolates was a thriving enterprise, best known for bonbons billed in turn-of-the-19th-century advertisements as the “most delicious, most famous of confections’’ and the “Gateway to the Good Graces of those who love the Good Things of Life.’’

“No product of the confectioner’s art is so delicious or so widely known or so universally preferred,’’ read one magazine ad.

Drawn to Mansfield by its available land and proximity to the railroad, Lowney became a legendary local figure. He donated land, helped create the town’s water and sewer system, and built a popular hotel and restaurant in the town center called The Tavern.

He also built homes for his workers, many of whom were Italian immigrants who settled nearby in the town’s north end. Lowney used the land across the street from the factory to raise cows, whose milk helped produce his premium chocolate, according to old newspaper articles. When he died in 1921, the entire town shut down to attend his funeral.

Lowney’s passed through a series of owners and came to be known as Merckens Chocolate. In recent years it has been run by ADM Cocoa, a division of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. ADM Cocoa, which acquired the plant in 1997, is among the world’s largest cocoa and chocolate manufacturers and grinds about 15 percent of the world’s cocoa crops.

The Mansfield plant, which is being shut as part of a consolidation at a new facility in Pennsylvania, employs 83 people. An unspecified number will move to the Pennsylvania factory, an industrial park facility that opened in 2008. Others will be given severance packages, including job transition support and employment assistance, the company said.

Several employees declined comment on their plans as they walked toward the factory on a recent day.

Town officials say ADM representatives have been tight-lipped about their plans for the property and have not met with them to discuss when the plant will be shut down and when it might be sold.

“I think as a community we need to be proactive to determine how that property gets used,’’ said William R. Ross, the town manager. “We don’t want it to just sit there, obviously.’’

Ross said ADM had been rumored to close the plant for some time, and that people had come to accept its era was near an end.

“We’ve been expecting it for a while,’’ he said. “Most people thought it was inevitable.’’

A spokeswoman for ADM said the company has not made a decision about the property.

The 14-acre property, which has an assessed value of nearly $4 million, is near a train station and could attract interest as a residential or mixed-use development, Ross said.

For much of its history, the plant made candy on site, at times even selling it to the public through a small store. But in recent years it became strictly an industrial supplier, at one point making the chips for Chips Ahoy cookies and the cocoa powder for Oreos. Products include cocoa powder, chocolate, chocolate chips, and chocolate coatings.

That has made the factory, imposing as it is, a beloved landmark, its pervasive chocolate aroma a reassuring constant.

“I’m not a wacko for chocolate, but I love the smell,’’ said Cecile Gomes, a 40-year-old who was finishing up a run under a strong midday sun. There are a number of distinct aromas, Gomes said, each lovely in its own way.

Yet to those counting calories, the appetizing scent can be cruel. “For people on a diet, it’s got to be a slap in the face,’’ Gomes said. “Like seeing a cake at the gym.’’

Gomes said the constant smells give her cravings for chocolate-covered ice cream bars. Others said it makes them want candy bars. But by far the most pervasive breeze-inspired foods, residents said, are brownies.

“Betty Crocker is very popular in this neighborhood,’’ Melbers said.

The factory has its bad days, residents said. Sometimes the smell is quite unpleasant, a thick, burnt scent that offends the nostrils. But it always returns to its sweeter version.

Some people strive to be nearer to it. Joe Plentus recalled the chiding he received when he moved into the apartment complex across the street from the factory. All the trucks would be noisy, his friends said, and the view dismal.

Then they visited, and realized his new location had other assets.

“It’s not so much of an eyesore anymore, is it?’’ Plentus recalled saying. “They were whistling a different tune.’’

Plentus, a wiry 25-year-old, said the smell doesn’t give him cravings for sweets. But when he and his girlfriend eat dinner with the door open, the odds of dessert surge.

The reality of the plant closing has some residents quietly celebrating the factory’s departure. It will feel like a weight has lifted, they quip.

“When I was pregnant, I couldn’t go two minutes without thinking about chocolate,’’ said one woman. “I don’t need that kind of pressure.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at

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