Neighbors sour over closing of historic Mars Wrigley factory: ‘It was divine’

The factory will be phased out over the next two years, the company announced this week. The future of the building remains unclear, as does the fate of its 280 workers.

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Mars Wrigley is closing the chocolate plant located at 2019 N Oak Park Ave. Thursday, January 27, 2022. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The Mars Wrigley factory is closing, and with it, a chapter of Chicago history.

The factory will be phased out of use over the next two years, the company announced earlier this week. The future of the building, once claimed to be the most beautiful candy factory in the country, remains unclear, as does the fate of the 280 workers currently employed by the factory.

For decades, the Mars Wrigley factory has been a literal — and figurative — sweet spot for Chicagoans.

At Halloween, kids and parents line up outside the factory, eagerly waiting for workers dressed out as M&Ms, Frankenstein, ghosts and vampires to fill their trick-or-treat bags with Mars Bars, Snickers and 3 Musketeers.

Koriander Bullard, 35, an author and cartoonist, grew up nearby. She said the rich smells of chocolate brought joy during tough visits with her family to nearby Shriners Hospital, where she accompanied her younger brother, who had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, nearly every other week.

“Every time we would go, you would smell the chocolate,” Bullard said. “It was divine. It was the best thing about going somewhere so scary.”

The Mars factory staff provided holiday chocolate displays for patients every year, with the last one in 1999, and would even donate truckloads of candy.

A Christmas chocolate display provided for the patients of Shriner Children’s Chicago by the Mars factory in 1991.

A Christmas chocolate display provided for the patients of Shriner Children’s Chicago by the Mars factory in 1991.

Courtsey of Shriner Children’s Chicago

“They’ve been our neighbors to the south forever,” said Mike Sullivan, director of facilities at Shriners Children’s Chicago. “We’ve always helped each other out. … They are like a staple for the neighborhood. It is sad to see them leave.”

The factory, 2019 N. Oak Park Ave., sits on 16 acres in Galewood and was initially purchased from a golf club.

Construction began in 1928, when founder Frank C. Mars moved the Mars headquarters from Minneapolis to Chicago. At the time, it was said to be America’s largest candy factory.

“It’s a huge loss for the community, and also the city,” Ald. Gilbert Villegas said. “I hope that somehow we try to figure out a way to replace it with something that can create some economic activity, create revenue.”

Workers at the plant will be “encouraged to explore the opportunities to apply for open roles across our network, specifically in the Chicago area,” a company spokesperson said.

Mars Wrigley will maintain two other large food manufacturing operations in Burr Ridge and Yorkville. It also houses its global headquarters in Chicago.

“The company remains committed to the city of Chicago and intends to partner with the surrounding community on a future vision for the site,” the spokesperson said.

Specific plans for the site have yet to be announced.

“I just like the idea of turning it into something useful,” said Lili Kilbridge, 66, a resident of Barrington who grew up nearby and worked at the factory for a summer during college. “I’ve seen so many examples of buildings that have been turned into successful community centers.”

At least one sign of the factory seems sure to remain: Metra has no plans of changing the nearby “Mars” stop, according to a Metra spokesperson.

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