The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Candy-cane priest from Little Rock had a sweet secret

Father Gregory Harding Keller invented the machine that "hooked" the candy cane

Published: December 21, 2017   
Diocese of Little Rock Archives
Father Gregory Keller, seen here around 1924, served as a parish priest while making inventions for his brother-in-law’s candy company in Georgia.

An Arkansas priest-inventor had a hand in creating the candy canes that you know and love this time of year.

The history of the candy cane is a little murky. Legend has it that the candy started as plain white sugar sticks, maybe in the 1600s, according to a 2015 National Geographic blog, The Plate.

“The stick got its cane-like hook, one unsubstantiated story claims, when a 17th-century choirmaster at Germany’s Cologne Cathedral convinced a local candy maker to bend sugar sticks into the shape of shepherd’s crooks, to amuse bored and restless children during Christmas Mass,” the blog reported.

Some say the hook was added to make it easier to hang on Christmas trees.

By the 16th century Europeans were decorating trees with candles. Trees were also decorated with fruit, nuts, candies, cookies and paper cones.

The candy cane was transformed when the idea arose to add peppermint with sugar to make peppermint candy. The iconic red and white stripes came later.

In the United States, handmade white candy canes were first recorded in 1847. In 1919 Bob McCormack started the McCormack’s Famous Candy Company in Albany, Ga., and started selling candy canes. The company, later known as Bobs’ Candy Company and then Bobs Candies, was known as the largest manufacturer of striped candy in the world. Bobs Starlight Mints, Peppermint Candy Balls and Sweet Stripes are still produced today.

This candy-shaping process was labor intensive because was it done by hand, until McCormack’s brother-in-law, Father Gregory Harding Keller, stepped in to make the process faster and more efficient.

When Father Keller invented the machine to twist the soft candy into spirals and cut the stick candy in 1952 and another machine to put the crook in the candy cane in 1957, sales took off. The candy twisting/cutting and later bending machine became known as the Keller Machine.

Bee McCormack, daughter of Bob McCormack, was quoted as saying, “There was no such thing as the candy cane industry. It was made by little shops that handmade candy and sold them in jars. … There was no such thing as the candy cane industry until the Keller Machine.”

Around the same time as the candy company was opened, Father Keller, a native of Little Rock, was becoming a priest. His father Joseph was the organist and choir director at the Cathedral of St. Andrew. 

He graduated from Little Rock College and studied for the priesthood at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained by Cardinal Basilio Pompilj in the Basilica of St. John Lateran on March 17, 1919, after the end of World War I.

After teaching for four years at St. John Seminary in Little Rock, he was assigned to be an associate pastor or pastor in Slovak, El Dorado, Helena, Pine Bluff and North Little Rock. While in El Dorado he helped establish Brown Hospital with the Sisters of Mercy.

While in Helena, the priest is infamous for kicking a young Elvis Presley out of St. Mary Church after a show for the Catholic Club in 1955 where he was allegedly signing the thigh of one of his young fans. Presley had performed there at least three other times in 1954 and 1955.

Father Keller retired in 1960 at the age of 65 after serving as the pastor of St. Paul Church in Pocahontas. He moved to Cullman, Ala., to teach math at St. Bernard College, later known as Southern Benedictine College.

A priest with eight degrees, “Dr. Keller” was known for his inventions. According to a 1960 article in The Guardian (now known as Arkansas Catholic) about his retirement, one of his hobbies was creating machines. He had patents on machines to decorate candy, package salted peanuts and process peanut butter cracker sandwiches. The 1960 article mentioned that he was still waiting for his patent on the Keller Machine being used in the McCormack candy company in Georgia.

The Keller Machine was such a hit that Father Keller also gained national attention in 1974 as a contestant on the TV show “What’s My Line?”

While in Alabama in 1970, he received another patent on his “stick assortment gathering machine” to assist with filling an assorted box or jar of various flavors or colors of stick candy. The royalties he received from his inventions were donated to charities, according to The Guardian.

The priest died Sept. 1, 1979, having celebrated 60 years as a priest.

Father Thomas Keller, a retired diocesan priest living in Little Rock and nephew of Father Gregory Keller, said he was a “great man” who he called “Doc Keller.”

After getting his first doctorate in Rome, Doc Keller wasn’t able to return home because of World War I so he stayed and got another doctorate, Father Thomas Keller said.

“He loved inventing stuff for his brother-in-law,” recalled. “He used the front room in his rectory for his inventions. His first one was the peanut butter sandwich machine.”

When Father Keller, 84, was in the seminary, he remembered his uncle trying to help him learn Latin.

“He was an interesting character,” he said. “He was a very smart man. He never wrote anything in theology. It was all to help his brother-in-law with the candy company.”

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