Mackinac Island is the self-proclaimed “fudge capital of the world” and for good reason.
With over a dozen fudge shops dotting the island, Mackinac boasts a rich tradition of fudge-making that spans over a century.
Our recent first-time visit to Mackinac Island offered us the chance to indulge in this delightful treat, and we were so deeply impressed by the exceptional fudge quality that couldn’t pass the opportunity to write an article about the experience.
Mackinac Island fudge, a brief history
Mackinac Island’s reputation for sweet treats goes back to the to the time when the island transitioned from being a hub for fur trading to a sought-after summer retreat during the Victorian era.
Native Americans like the Anishinaabeg had a long tradition of harvesting maple sugar on the island. And after wars were no longer being fought on the island and fur trading phased out, vacationers came here for the sweet delight of maple sugar.
During the 1880s, the Murdick family made their way to Mackinac Island and established the island’s inaugural candy store, Murdick’s Candy Kitchen.
Henry Murdick and his son, Jerome “Rome” Murdick, who were skilled sail makers, used the back of the candy store building to craft sails. Whenever sailors and other customers visited, Henry’s wife, Sara Murdick, astounded them with her remarkable confectionery creations.
In due course, she began to experiment with fudge-making, and her son Rome quickly learned the recipe, becoming skilled at crafting these delectable treats too.
Savoring sweets while vacationing soon became an integral aspect of the Mackinac Island tourist tradition as other fudge shops also opened up on the island.
Rome Murdick became the first on Mackinac Island to craft fudge using marble slabs, a technique that bestowed a distinctive creamy texture to the product while simultaneously serving as an entertaining spectacle for customers.
With the addition of music, these fudge-making performances became a bit of a show.
Onlookers were captivated as they witnessed the workers guide the fudge through its entire production process.
The process commenced with a blending of chocolate, sugar, cream, and butter in a copper kettle, skillfully maintained at the ideal temperature with the aid of an oak paddle.
Following this, the skilled artisans expertly molded and gently worked the cooling fudge into loaves before executing precise cuts to create individual, delectable pieces.
In an effort to attract more customers, Rome Murdick and his oldest son, Gould, utilized the cooling fans in their kitchen to disperse the irresistible aroma of freshly-made fudge out into the streets, effectively enticing passersby and helping to revitalize their business.
Mackinac Island fudge experienced both peaks and valleys throughout the first half of the 20th century, navigating the challenges posed by two world wars and the Great Depression.
As sugar became rationed and tourism dwindled, several fudge shops on the island were forced to shut their doors, including Gould who sold the business to Harold May in 1940. May would go on to create May’s, another beloved fudge shop on the island.
Meanwhile, Jerome Murdick, Gould’s half-brother, eventually opened Murdick’s Candy Kitchen, re-igniting the family’s fudge legacy on the island during the 1950s.
After World War II, the country’s economy took off and the expanding interstate highway system made it easier than ever for people to visit Mackinac Island.
Fudge shops proliferated, and by the 1960s the island’s visitors coming for the fudge were known as “fudgies.” Shops experimented with new flavors of fudge and worked to make Mackinac Island synonymous with the treat.
Some shops in the area even attempted to branch out nationwide, which is how we encountered a random candy shop in Georgetown, Colorado, with past ties to Mackinac’s “fudge rush.” Others now have locations in places like Chicago and even Martha’s Vineyard.
Today, over a dozen fudge shops grace Main Street and surrounding area.
It’s said that the island imports 10 tons of sugar per week, handcrafts an average of ten thousand pounds of fudge daily, and that each shop can make up to five hundred pounds a day. The designation of the “fudge capital of the world” certainly appears well-deserved.
As you wander down Main Street, you’ll notice that certain brands have expanded to multiple locations (often within a short distance of each other), making them impossible to miss.
They run on different schedules so you’ll have to just poke around the shop to see fudge making in process but it’s not very difficult to find the workers in action.
As far as the Murdick legacy goes, there are only a few stores that still have a direct lineage connection to the family but none of them are located on Mackinac Island.
That’s because Bob Benser, Sr. bought the Murdicks’ business in 1969 after opening an ice cream shop next to Murdick’s Candy Kitchen and learning how to make the delicious fudge.
So if you’re looking for fudge shops with the direct Murdick family tie, you’ll need to find them in other areas like Traverse City, Michigan.
On our visit to Mackinac Island, we ventured into several of the different fudge shops including Original Murdick’s Fudge, Joann’s Fudge, Ryba’s Fudge Shop, and a few others.
We picked up on some of the differences between the flavors and textures and enjoyed most of the different shops we tried but our ultimate favorite was Murdick’s.
It’s said that you don’t have to worry about the fudge melting which is a relief but you don’t want to refrigerate your fudge (apparently you can freeze it for a while without ruining it). Lots of the shops allow for online orders so you can always purchase gifts for people later on, after you’ve had your fair sampling.
While fudge making was not invented here (it likely was invented near Baltimore when someone accidentally “fudged” a batch of caramel) Mackinac Island certainly helped transform it into a cherished part of American culinary tradition, particularly when on vacation.
For someone like me, who is not a true fudge person, it says a lot that I could not get enough of the chocolate walnut fudge from Murdick’s. If you catch a fresh batch of that, it’s really hard to put down. By the way, if you’re headed to the airport after making your fudge purchase, be sure to read our guide so that you don’t trip off alarms!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.