A look at the legacy left behind by Issaquah’s first rockstar candy maker

February 23, 2010

By David Hayes

In 1956, in a town more renowned as a farming community and for its legacy in the logging and mining industries, an unlikely new venture opened its doors in Issaquah by an even more uncommon man.

In the foothills of the Issaquah Alps, Julius Boehm found a perfect setting, one that reminded him of his home in the Austrian Alps, from which to offer up a risky venture few thought had much chance at success — selling handmade chocolate confections.

“People thought it was a joke of an idea at the time,” said Bernard Garbusjuk, the current owner of Boehm’s Candies.

Well, the joke was on the doubters, as Julius Boehm added a new legacy the city of Issaquah can now lay claim to.

But as time marches on further away from Boehm’s passing in 1981, fewer remain who knew the man willing to take that risk.

Garbusjuk is one of the few who remained close to Boehm up to the end. A pastry chef by trade, Garbusjuk came to the U.S. in 1968 through the sponsorship of Schnitzelbank Restaurant. In 1971, a mutual friend, Walter Schiefer, asked Garbusjuk to join Boehm in his candy-making venture in Issaquah.

Garbusjuk was impressed by the strong personality running the growing candy enterprise.

“He was actually the first ‘soup Nazi,’” Garbusjuk said, referring to the short-tempered “Seinfeld” character. “The store would have people lined up outside to buy candy. With Julius, you had to make up your mind quickly or get out of here.”

An impressive, but tough, boss

Julius Boehm was already 74 years old by the time Garbusjuk began to apprentice under him. He became more impressed with his new, tough boss.

Boehm was born to a family of privilege in 1897 in Vienna, Austria, to an Austrian father and Swiss mother.

“I used to say his stubborn side was his Swiss way of doing things,” Garbusjuk said, “and his charming side was his Austrian way.”

While there are many gaps in Boehm’s personal history, what is known for sure is his athletic prowess. In 1924, Julius represented Austria in the Olympics, running the third leg of the men’s 400 relay in Paris. Later, he carried the Olympic torch that was en route to the 1936 games in Berlin, running his leg of the relay over one kilometer of Austrian roads.

The very torch he carried in 1936 sits in a case on display in Boehm’s chalet, where he lived out the final decades of his life above his candy factory.

Garbusjuk said it was this pride in his country that made him unable to sit idly by as Austrian families sided with the growing Nazi German empire in World War II. There are a couple versions of how Boehm escaped there in 1939.

“One version is with little but the clothes on his back, Julius cross-country skied, out of Austria and into Switzerland, in the dark of night,” Garbusjuk said.

The Alpines of the West

Boehm came to the United States in 1941, his first job was getting by teaching ski lessons on the East Coast. Garbusjuk said one of Boehm’s students told him about Washington state, with its gorgeous mountains. And that was enough to hook him — he crossed the U.S. to see this pristine land for himself.

Liking what he found, Boehm stayed, later opening his first Candy Kitchen in the Ravenna area of Seattle in 1943 with friend George Tedlock. Through the help of another mutual friend, candymaker Cecil Hall, they developed the signature taste that would become Boehm’s Candies.

Garbusjuk said Boehm was the first to apply the “authentic Alpine quality” tag to his candy, also being the first to import European chocolate to the West Coast.

Garbusjuk said Boehm’s great skill at the factory was delegation.

“He had a great nose for finding the right person for a job and he’d go to battle for that person,” Garbusjuk said. “Of course, if anything went wrong, it was still their fault.”

To continue the Alpine feel in his candy factory, in 1956, Boehm commissioned Walter Schefer, from Appenzell, Switzerland, to design and build the Edelweiss Chalet, as it was named. It was the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, Garbusjuk said.

“Schefer and his crew later went on to design the whole Alpine look for Leavenworth, Wash.,” Garbusjuk added.

To keep the setting natural, Garbusjuk said the Chalet and other additions to the original factory were built up around the trees already in place. And to continue the Alpine theme, Boehm used to raise huge litters of Saint Bernards.

Young athlete at heart

Mindi Reid, approaching her two-year anniversary working at Boehm’s, is one of the regular tour guides. About 10,000 people take tours of the chalet from June through September and in special groups the rest of the year. The last of the Saint Bernards passed away in the early 1980s.

“But we still have people come through here asking about the dogs,” Reid said.

The chalet’s walls are decorated with art reminiscent of European greats. Garbusjuk said because Boehm came to America with little, he frequently in later years traveled back to his home country, collecting the works that adorn the walls of his new home and inside the factory.

Some of the walls are tributes to milestones in Boehm’s life, from the certificate of participation in the 1924 Olympics to the photos of the summits he climbed, such as Mount Rainier at the spry age of 80. He was the oldest man to climb Rainier at the time.

In fact, Boehm remained active in athletics well into his later years, Garbusjuk said, often playing tennis or hitting the ski slopes with those more than half his age.

“He didn’t like senior sports,” Garbusjuk said. “He felt it would typecast him.”

Boehm became prolific in the number of locals to which he gave both skiing and swimming lessons.

Like going with a rock star

By 1965, Boehm had built up quite the reputation, and that’s when Suzanne Suther first came into his life. The retired executive director of the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce was giving regional tours for the Seattle Convention and Business Bureau.

Suther said Boehm was a big advocate of the arts, often passing his love of the theatrical on to the younger generation and paying for youths to attend events in Seattle.

“To go to the opera with him was to go with a rock star,” Suther said. “He was very charming, very interesting.”

One her favorite memories of Boehm is the time he took her to an opera. Before they left, Boehm sat down at his dining table and played the opera for her first, translating the story.

“It was fascinating to me,” she added.

Suther would go on to open her own Boehm franchise in Poulsbo.

One of the last legacies Boehm left behind was the High Alpine Chapel, finished in 1981, next to the chalet. A replica of a 12th century chapel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the chapel is Boehm’s tribute to fallen mountain climbers.
It features a painted mural of a Christ-like figure carrying the soul of a climber up to heaven. And above the fresco is a recreation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of The Creation of Adam. The Boehm recreation was painted by former employee, Margaret Van Wrangel, who provided many other works throughout the chalet.

Reid said Boehm wanted the alpine theme to encompass even the pulpit, which was built from large stones to resemble a mountainscape.

“He wanted to have his own mountain inside the chapel,” Reid said.

As a regular tour guide, Reid frequently uncovers tidbits from Boehm’s past, from magazine articles to portfolios with romantic photos he took over the years. She often encourages Garbusjuk to create an official archive of items and tales from Boehm’s past, so his legacy will never be lost.

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