EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece, "Pop's Corn," will be a chapter in Kay Armstrong Baker's second memoir about her life in River Falls and Hudson in the 1950-60's. It's a story about her dad, Pop, his popcorn wagon and the impact he had on the kids who loved him and remember him to this day. "Pop's Corn" was selected this year by the Maryland Writers Association's bi-yearly publication, "Pen-In-Hand."
By Kay Armstrong Baker
In the late 1950's, when I was in middle school, my dad decided to buy a popcorn wagon as an adjunct to his retail business, Armstrong's Gift and Variety Store, located on Main Street in River Falls, Wisconsin. River Falls is a town on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, 40 miles from the Twin Cities. In the 1950's, it had a population of 5,000. It also had a state teachers' college, that educated not only elementary and secondary teachers but also students majoring in agriculture. The college barns, which were on campus, gave off an aroma of manure that gave rise to the nickname "MOO U."
In the Upper Midwest, towns such as River Falls, selling popcorn was a growing enterprise in the 50's. In the warmer months, popcorn wagons dotted the landscape in the rural areas. They would be seen at fairs, holiday celebrations, the local pool, football games and on Main Street.
My dad bought a converted milk truck. It was white and he painted "Pop's Corn" in big red letters on both sides. From that moment on he was forever called "Pop." The wagon had windows on all four sides, a door which opened much like a school bus and an engine with six gears. When it was used for delivering dairy products, the milkman stood while driving. Standing provided plenty of room for the milk, cream and cheese and now for the goodies that would make up Pop's Corn.
There was a corn popper in the rear, a place to melt the butter (real butter), a cotton candy machine, a place for candy and a freezer for ice cream bars. Pop taught me how to drive the wagon, plug it into the power source, pop the corn and be ready for business. An added bonus was when my boyfriends would stop by to chat. They knew they'd get a free bag of popcorn compliments of the management. It was the best job I ever had.
River Falls was like an extended family in those days: the good, the bad and the ugly. Churches were in abundance ranging from the Catholic Church to the Assembly of God plus a small Unitarian Fellowship. As in most small Wisconsin towns, there were at least as many bars as there were churches. The Masons were a close-knit group of men who influenced the politics, policy and the decision-making in town.
Through some of his Masonic friends on the city council, Pop got permission to have electric outlets installed around town to provide a source of electricity for the wagon. On Friday nights you'd find him on a corner on Main Street. This was the night that the stores were open and the farmers would come into town to shop, eat and visit with others. He could be seen selling popcorn at the college and high school football fields, and in the summer months, in the park by the pool. Some parents called him "Public Enemy No. 1." They knew when they came to pick up their kids they'd have to buy a treat from Pop's Corn.
An essential place to park the wagon was across the street from the college dorms. The students would smell the popcorn and walk across Cascade Avenue to buy a box of Pop's Corn and visit with him. It was during the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the controversy over "intellectual freedom" on college and university campuses. As they stood around the wagon, Pop listened as they talked about the current events unfolding around the world. These discussions deepened and added breadth to his world view. He didn't always agree with them but their opinions didn't threaten him as with most adults who had lived through the World Wars and the Great Depression. Many of these college kids were homesick. Some of the town kids needed a break from their dysfunctional families. They all knew that Pop was never too busy to visit with them. He became an "unofficial counselor" and an advertisement for a welcoming community. Who wouldn't get a good vibe with the smell of popcorn in the air?
I didn't know how important Pop was to the kids in River Falls until I came home one summer from Maryland. Pop was just Pop, my dad, with all the issues that go along between parent and child. I stopped by to see my former Methodist minister. In the course of our conversation, Rev. Truitt told me when his kids and their friends reminisced about growing up in River Falls they always mentioned Pop.
"Your dad was an institution in River Falls", he said. He recalled how important Pop was in their lives and how one of them said, "He was always there to listen and make time for me." I was surprised and touched.
The next summer when I was back in River Falls, I saw memorial bricks downtown in a small park by the river. I thought that a brick would be an appropriate tribute in memory of my parents. I decided to go to city hall to find out how to purchase one. I walked into the administrative offices and saw a plump, middle aged woman with a badge with her name as Cindy Larson.
"Hi, I'm Kay Armstrong Baker. I would like to purchase a brick for the park downtown in honor of my parents but I can't seem to find the right person to talk to." "Ya, I know someone, who could help you," she said in her Upper Midwest accent, "Do you mind if I ask you who's it for?"
When I told her, I wanted to honor my parents, Pop and Laura Armstrong, she stared at me in disbelief, stunned. After a few seconds, her face lit up and tears came to her eyes. She hugged me which was totally out of character for an Upper Midwesterner.
"I remember Pop! Our parents always gave us money to buy popcorn or candy after our swimming lessons. He teased us and said funny things. He would make us girls giggle by saying 'How are you boys today?' Pop was so special! Everybody loved him." She shook her head, "Oh no, a brick won't do. He needs a park bench across from the pool!"
After all these years I became aware of the impact Pop made in the lives of the young people who lived in River Falls. He was unconditionally accepting of them and all he did was sell popcorn and take time to listen. And that's how a park bench, with a plaque honoring my parents, was placed on the same spot where Pop's Corn was parked so long ago.