For over three months, a small necklace with a golden ticket attached lay buried in the ground at Highland Park, waiting to be found.

Andrew Maas, a 39-year-old father from Colorado, did just that. On Aug. 29, he walked into the park and dug up the ticket hidden beneath the Vermont Covered Bridge.

And with that, he became the new owner of a 4,000-square-foot candy factory in Florida.

The find was the culmination of a year-long, nationwide, Willy Wonka-inspired treasure hunt that had 35,000 people solving riddles and then scouring the country for golden tickets hidden in every state.

But the final ticket for the ultimate candy factory prize lay quietly underground in Highland Park.

THE CANDYMAN CAN

The national scavenger hunt was orchestrated by David “Candyman” Klein, who developed the world-famous Jelly Belly brand in 1976 and founded Candyman Kitchens.

Last year, he and his partner, Stephanie Thirtyacre, drove around the country hiding the tickets in every state and then creating four-line riddles leading hunters to the prize. One thousand people were allowed to register for each state hunt, and the finder was awarded a $5,000 prize.

“We just got in the car and went,” Thirtyacre said. “We do things really spontaneously.”

When Klein, 74, announced the treasure hunt in September, it quickly gained national media attention, with major news outlets around the world covering the fantastical undertaking. Soon, their website for the search went viral.

That’s when Maas came across the contest.

He said he loves riddles and adventures. He even met his wife during a year-long mission trip around the world that was based on the hit TV show “The Amazing Race.”

So the prospect of getting clues and searching for golden tickets was something Maas couldn’t resist. He ended up registering for the hunt in Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming and South Dakota, but never found a ticket.

Maas said he did solve the riddle for the ticket in Kansas and was on his way to get it when another contestant beat him to it one minute before he arrived.

Then, on Memorial Day weekend, the final riddle for the last ticket was released for everyone who had registered for the state hunts. It read:

Don’t have a instant idea, for a treasure diehard

We see witches nearby, two stand guard

Go Solve and Search, as low as our toe

Why find a nut and walks are no foe

Maas instantly started working on solving the puzzle. For months, he worked through the clues, but kept hitting dead ends.

As the weeks dragged on and no one found the ticket, Klein started releasing smaller clues to help, including narrowing down the search area from six states to just Illinois and Indiana.

That’s when Maas hit on the idea that “a treasure diehard” was Indiana Jones. The ticket was in Indiana. He started looking at cities in the state and came across Kokomo. That’s when the line “Don’t have a instant idea” made him think of the Beach Boys’ song “Kokomo” and the lyrics “We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow.”

“It was such a fun name, and I knew David was a fun, lighthearted person,” Maas said.

It felt right, so he started looking at all the parks in the city, knowing the tickets were always hidden in public spaces. Maas found a photo on Google Maps of the two pavilions near the Vermont Covered Bridge in Highland Park. They looked like two witches’ hats.

At 10:30 p.m. Aug. 28, all the clues fell into place. Maas had it.

THE SEARCH IS ON

At midnight, he bought a 6 a.m. flight from Denver to Indianapolis, where he landed that morning and drove straight to Kokomo.

After a 30-minute search, Maas knew it was buried somewhere under the bridge after looking around the displays of Old Ben and the Sycamore Stump.

Klein had earlier provided all the contestants with a close-up photo of the spot as a clue, which showed metal. From the sun glinting in the picture, he knew it had to be under the northwest metal truss of the bridge.

Maas started digging. Then he saw the glint of the metal ticket in the ground.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it,’” he said. “After all this time, I had it. It was so surreal. I had been thinking about this for a year. It was a crazy mix of adrenaline and excitement.”

Maas registered his find on the treasure hunt website. Twenty minutes later, Klein called him while he was still in Highland Park and told him he had won. He had just won the candy factory.

Maas was floored. He now owned the plant, which makes an edible sand-art treat called Sandy Candy, along with other sweet concoctions. But he knew he couldn’t pick up his wife and two kids and move them to Florida to run the business.

Instead, the two are now working on an agreement in which Klein gives him the factory and then buys it back from him. Maas said he’s fine with whatever the agreement turns out to be.

“Whatever it is, we’ll be happy with it,” he said. “It’s money we didn’t have. But the excitement and adventure was the real reward. The money is the gravy on top.”

It all begs the question: Why choose Kokomo for the final golden ticket?

As with most things with Klein and Thirtyacre, it came down to random chance.

‘BETTER THAN REALITY’

Around March, the two started thinking about where to hide the final ticket, and figured they wanted it somewhere in the middle of the country. Kansas was in the back of their minds.

So like before, they jumped in the car and started driving from Florida to Kansas with no particular place in mind. When they hit Indiana, Thirtyacre decided she was tired of driving. The two planned to head to Illinois to see her son.

That’s when they saw the exit for Kokomo. Klein started humming the Beach Boys song, and Thirtyacre remembered she had an aunt who had recently died who lived there. Soon, they were on the exit and heading into the city before they found themselves in Highland Park.

They both instantly fell in love with the Vermont Covered Bridge. And that’s where they buried the last golden ticket that ended up hidden for three months before Maas flew from Colorado to find it.

The two ended up also falling in love with the city. In fact, they named their new kitten Kokomo.

“Everybody there has a really, really good attitude and a positive attitude, and we really felt welcome there,” Klein said.

The treasure hunt fulfilled a lifelong dream for Klein, who has worked in the candy business since he was 7 years old, when he ran the candy section of his grandmother’s licorice store in California.

Inspired by Willy Wonka, Klein has always wanted to give away a candy factory, and Thirtyacre said she’s always wanted to create her own national treasure hunt. With their powers combined, they decided to pull it off last year.

And now that the contest is over, and they’ve given away a candy factory and $250,000 in prize money, they both say they feel like they’ve done something truly special for the nation as it struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We honestly felt like we did some good for the world, and that gave us the greatest pleasure,” Klein said. “It was something to think about and dream about. And sometimes dreams are better than reality.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo Tribune and can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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