There was a giant circus tent inside a building. 14-foot-tall poles supported the brilliant red, white, and blue striped canvas. Throughout the big top tent, there were nearly fifty antique popcorn machines and peanut roasters. At the entrance, the vibrant red carpet was overlaid with dark gray letters: Wyandot Popcorn Museum.
I almost didn’t make it to the museum before they closed for the day. I was road tripping across Ohio on U.S. Highway 23 and had just left Columbus behind earlier that day. But after a visit to the Columbus Zoo, a stop in Delaware for lunch at the Hamburger Inn Diner, I arrived in Marion with just an hour to spare.
Arriving in Marion, I parked behind Heritage Hall – the 1910 Post Office that was home to the Marion County Historical Society. I love exploring history as I travel, and after finding this on Google Maps, I knew I wanted to visit. But I had no idea what occupied the south annex of the building.
Wyandot Popcorn Company
It all started in 1936 with William “Hoover” Brown. At the height of the Great Depression, Hoover and Ava Brown were looking to increase the income from their small farm. So, in addition to grains and livestock, they planted 100 acres of corn.
While the mere act of putting food on the table was a luxury for most Americans in the 1930s, popcorn was a rare treat. Cheap, often sold in ready-to-eat bags, popcorn became a popular staple across the country.
One of the few industries to perform well during the Great Depression was the movie theater. Eager to escape the doldrums of daily life, people flocked to the cinema for adventures starring Carey Grant, James Stewart, and Jean Harlow. The first mobile popcorn machines came along with the crowds – the horse-drawn carriages and giant carts were parked outside theaters. Although owners were hesitant to allow the disastrously messy snack inside their theaters, they eventually adopted the treat and began installing popcorn machines inside.
In 1948, Hoover Brown founded a subsidiary of the Wyandot Popcorn Company, Popped-Right Corn Company, and began selling ready-to-eat bags of popcorn to movie theaters. However, it was only the beginning of success for the company. By the 1980s, Wyandot Popcorn Company was the second-largest producer of popcorn in the United States and accounted for nearly 25% of the worldwide trade of raw popcorn.
Marion County Historical Society
In the 1960s, Judge Charlton Myers hosted a radio program on Sunday afternoons to discuss the history of Marion County. In the latter half of the decade, he began teaching adult education classes on the county’s history.
In 1969, David Haldeman approached Myers with the idea to create a historical society. Meeting at the Women’s Club Home on February 17, seventy-five former students and local residents founded the Marion County Historical Society and elected Myers the first president.
At first, the historical society was homeless. Meetings were hosted at the Ohio State University campus in Marion and even members’ private homes. Then, in 1989, an opportunity presented itself when plans were announced to sell the United States Post Office building downtown. George Brown had amassed a collection of antique popcorn machines. So he approached the Marion County Historical Society with a proposition: he would help fund the purchase of the 1910 Post Office in exchange for finding a permanent home for his museum in the south annex of the building.
Wyandot Popcorn Museum
In the 1970s, George Brown, son of Hoover and Ava Brown, discovered a passion for the history of popcorn. He began traveling the country, conducting interviews, and gathering information for a book he intended to write. Along the way, Brown collected antique popcorn machines and peanut roasters.
By 1982, his collection had grown so large he decided to open a museum to share it with the people in Marion. The original location was a small space in the Wyandot Popcorn Company’s headquarters. As the collection continued to grow, it moved to a local shopping mall and even a bed and breakfast for a short time. Then, in 1989, a permanent home was secured when he collaborated with the Marion County Historical Society to purchase Heritage Hall – the 1910 Post Office building.
Standing at the Wyandot Popcorn Museum entrance, I laughed out loud. There was a giant circus tent inside a building. 14-foot-tall poles supported the brilliant red, white, and blue striped canvas. Throughout the big top tent, there were nearly fifty antique popcorn machines and peanut roasters.
The 1893 Olson Dry Popper and 1896 Kingery No. 180 are the only 19th century machines in the collection, but that’s still impressive. The 1911 Cretors Model D Popcorn Wagon commands visitors’ attention in the center of the big top tent. The collection includes machines that were horse-drawn, steam-powered, and electric. Some were portable, while others were stationary. All have been meticulously restored to original condition.
But the museum is more than just a collection of shiny antique machines. It’s also a place of learning. Interpretive panels throughout the museum detail the history of popcorn, how different types of corn and maize produce different kernels and expands on the history of the machinery. It’s a place of admiring beautiful antique machines while learning about one of the most popular snacks in the country.
Actor Paul Newman and the 1911 Dunbar Wagon
I didn’t know about it when I visited the Wyandot Popcorn Museum. I don’t have any photos of it. But one of the most impressive pieces of the entire collection is a 1911 Dunbar Wagon previously owned by actor Paul Newman.
But the story goes much deeper.
In 1982, Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner began selling homemade salad dressing under the Newman’s Own brand name. Starting with a $40,000 investment split between the two, the company quickly gained traction and began expanding.
A couple of years later, Newman wanted to expand the lineup with ready-to-eat popcorn. After testing dozens of popcorn brands across the country, he settled on the flavors produced by the Wyandot Popcorn Company. Signing a deal with George Brown, Newman’s Own Popcorn appeared on grocery store shelves.
To promote the new venture, Newman bought a 1911 Dunbar Popcorn and Peanut Concession Wagon from Dennis Koepsell in Wisconsin. He transported the antique to New York City, where he planned to park it in Central Square to promote his brand. However, to gain approval for the marketing ploy, Newman had to agree to donate all the profits of his brand to charity – something the company maintains to this day.
In 1987, George Brown purchased the 1911 Dunbar Wagon from Newman and added it to his growing collection. When the Wyandot Popcorn Museum moved into Heritage Hall, he donated the antique to the museum so everyone could appreciate the beauty and history.
The Annual Marion Popcorn Festival
It should go without saying that the home of one of the largest popcorn producers in the country and one of the only popcorn museums in the world would also host the largest popcorn festival every year.
The annual Marion Popcorn Festival is held the weekend after Labor Day. The three-day event spanning Thursday, Friday, and Saturday draws nearly 250,000 visitors to the small town. Well-known musicians headline the entertainment, people line the street to watch the parade, and freshly popped popcorn fills the air for days.