By Sue Ellen Kennedy
There once was a building on Highway 6 with the words “Superior Popcorn Factory” written on its side. The Superior Popcorn Factory was owned by Chet Breckenridge. Established in the 1930’s, it flourished until he sold the company to the Heart of Iowa Popcorn Company in 1965, which closed in the 1980’s.
During the Great Depression, Mr. Breckenridge operated a retail popcorn shop on Locust Street in Des Moines. He would buy popcorn from farmers and sell it to businesses—mainly Des Moines-area movie theaters. In 1941, he built the plant in Waukee and developed a wholesale popcorn business. His business later expanded nationally, selling popcorn machines to movie theaters, schools and carnivals. His main office remained on Ingersoll Avenue in Des Moines.
Mr. Breckenridge dabbled in growing popcorn on a small plot of land for testing purposes. Most of his popcorn came from farmers he contracted to grow it for him. The farmers used corn pickers and then hauled the crop to the Waukee plant. Breckenridge’s hoist would lift the wagons, dumping the popcorn onto a conveyer, which would move it to a storage crib. The crib could store 20,000 bushels at a time.
The popcorn would dry naturally in the crib until it was ready to shell. Scratched or cracked popcorn kernels would not pop correctly, so the workers had to use plastic buckets and handle the popcorn carefully. Air from a mill or cleaner was used to remove the chaff. A gravity mill was used to grade the popcorn, and the kernels were separated by weight.
The heavier kernels were considered the better kernels. As the popcorn went down and around an incline the small and odd kernels would fall off to the side. The extra-large kernels were separated for uniform grade popcorn. Finally, a drying process was completed prior to packaging. The popcorn was sold in 25-, 50- and 100-lb. bags.
Stores received cases of two dozen 2-lb. bags. Prior to 1941, the railroad near the plant was used for shipping. In 1941, they started shipping by truck. Today, there are no signs, buildings or any indication that this once-thriving business ever existed.
Interesting Facts about Popcorn
- Americans consume 17.3 billion quarts of popcorn per year.
- Popcorn is a whole grain.
- Most of the popcorn grown in the United States is grown in Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Iowa. Nebraska is the top producer, with 250 million lbs. per year.
- Popcorn kernels can pop up to three feet in the air.
- In the United States during the 1890’s, street vendors would push steam- or gasoline-powered poppers in places where crowds gathered, such as sporting events, parks, carnivals and fairs.
- The popcorn business thrived during the Great Depression because that’s when movie theaters began to sell it.
- Unpopped popcorn kernels are called “spinsters” or “old maids.”
- Native Americans used dried herbs, spices and chili as popcorn flavorings.
Fifty-five different varieties of popcorn are grown in North America. Most popcorn comes in two basic shapes when popped—snowflake and mushroom. The snowflake variety is used in movie theaters and ball parks. It looks bigger. Mushroom is used for candy confections because it doesn’t crumble.
The first popcorn machine was invented by Charles Cretors of Chicago, Illinois in the 1880’s. The actual date is unknown, but he was issued a peddler’s license to use the machine on Dec. 2, 1885. Cretors also invented a large-scale automated commercial machine in 1893.
In 1914, Cloid H. Smith founded American Pop Corn Company in Sioux City, Iowa. American Pop Corn Company launched the Jolly Time brand in 1925. Perry Spencer invented microwave popcorn in 1945.
Popcorn sales decreased as the popularity of televisions increased in the early 1950’s because more people were staying home instead of going to the theaters. However, sales increased once again when popcorn became easily accessible to the everyday consumer.