Ohio is popping with history but in Marion, that history tastes delicious with an added touch of butter – or salt – or caramel – or…
Welcome to the big top, literally. Step right up folks, the world’s largest popcorn museum is inside a circus tent inside a historic building.
Before you see anything, you smell it! MM-mmm-mm! Freshly roasted popcorn. Just before you catch yourself drooling, your eyes will turn as wide as saucers when the giant red, white and blue circus tent comes into view.
The main attraction is the world-famous Wyandot Popcorn Museum. It’s the largest on the planet and only one of two in the country. It just so happens that the other one is also in Ohio. Go figure.
The bright and colorful circus tent puts everyone in a festive mood. Then you see these fascinating nickel-plated contraptions that look more like priceless pieces of art. But its art that moves. Careful, the intricate interlinking parts of these unique machines will mesmerize you. So will the craftsmanship.
Imagine steam whistleblowing.
Here you don’t have to imagine it because you’ll hear it – for real. But for safety purposes, the steam whistles on these polished like new relics are now generated by air compressors.
Timeout for a trivia question: What are non-popped kernels called?
Answer: Old Maids.
Okay, back to the story.
This creative and interactive museum features more than 50 popcorn machines – many doubled as peanut roasters (5 or 6 peanut roasting only machines). The collection features a few horse drawn carts, a 1927 Ford Model TT Concession Wagon, 1911 Dunbar Wagon, Cretors 1899 No. 1 Popcorn Cart, 1896 Kingery steam-driven wagon, and 1892 Olson store-type dry popper.
Here’s a side note about that 1911 Dunbar Wagon. The museum founder, George Brown, son of the Wyandot Popcorn Company founder, William “Hoover” Brown, decided to drive over to the Mid-Ohio Raceway one day in the early 1980s. Native Ohioan and famed Hollywood actor, Paul Newman, was there with his race team. George and Paul struck up a conversation about popcorn of all things. George grew up in the business and Paul wanted to launch a line of popcorn for his Newman’s Own brand. But he needed the right supplier. That day he found one. They shook hands and next, the Brown family found themselves in New York’s Central Park with Newman and his business partner Al Hutchner launching their line of jarred popcorn in 1984. George’s wife, Millie, posed for a photograph with Paul Newman with a perfect vintage 1911 Dunbar Wagon as a backdrop. That wagon is in the Wyandot Popcorn Museum today.
The museum teaches all kinds of interesting things about popcorn history and Wyandot Popcorn Company’s part in that. For example, in 1948 an archaeological dig in “Bat Cave”, New Mexico turned up what many believe to be the oldest ears of popcorn ever found, dating well over a thousand years old. Popcorn was originally prepared by Native Americans using a bowl containing sand and placing the bowl over fire. The sand heated the kernels and when they popped, they popped to the top of the sand.
Now let’s fast forward to modern history and the early movie theaters. Movie theater popcorn started when street vendors began setting up in front of movie houses. At first, theater owners chased the vendors away. But when they saw how much moviegoers loved the popped corn, theater owners saw dollar signs and invited the vendors inside. Then they realized they don’t need the vendors, just the machines. So the movie theater snack bar was born. In 1948, Popped Right Corn Company became a subsidiary of Wyandot Popcorn Company to supply theater chains with popped popcorn.
But the Wyandot story and how it contributed to the history of popcorn began during The Great Depression. That’s when William “Hoover” Brown decided to plant 100 acres of popcorn to see how things would go. Well, things went well. And that’s how Wyandot Popcorn Company got its start in 1936. Years later, Golden Crisp and Caramel Corn were named by Ava Brown, “Hoover’s” wife, for the Shirk Candy Company which is still open in Marion, Ohio today.
“Hoover” and Ava’s son, George, gained interest in the popcorn industry, naturally, and in the 1970s, he wanted to write a book about it.
His passion brought him to auctions where he acquired old broken-down popcorn machines and peanut roasters. He then found a superb restorer in Bob Pearson of Kansas to transform the vintage machines to their original condition. They looked brand new again. Other restorers over the years included Roy Arrington in Las Vegas, NV and several of Wyandot’s own restoring experts. And although George never wrote his book, he became a treasure trove of information and thus a reliable source for others who wrote books about the popcorn industry.
George’s private collection grew so big, he decided to open a museum in 1982 at the Wyandot Popcorn Company’s headquarters in Marion. The museum grew more and found new homes for the public to come marvel at the colorful history of popcorn and experience it firsthand. Locations included the Southland Mall. After that, the collection was pieced out to multiple locations like the old COSI (Center of Science & Industry) museum building in Columbus, Ohio to feature displays.
Finally, in 1989, The Wyandot Popcorn Museum found a permanent home at Heritage Hall – the old 1910 Marion post office building – along with the Marion County Historical Society Museum. The Wyandot Popcorn Museum is inside what used as a sizeable mail sorting room in the 1930s which is now transformed by the big top circus tent.
Today Wyandot Popcorn Company in Marion, Ohio creates popcorn for a major brand to private label. Who that company is shall remain a secret.
Not only is Marion, Ohio home to the largest popcorn museum in the world, it hosts the largest popcorn festival in the world. The American Bus Association previously named The Marion Popcorn Festival one of the top-100 events in North America. The festival is always held during the weekend after Labor Day and attracts about a quarter-million people annually.
Wyandot Popcorn Museum is open from 1pm – 4pm on weekends except in January and February and major holidays. It is located at 169 E. Church Street in Marion, Ohio. Admission is $4/adult, $3/senior, $1.50 for school-age kids and free for preschoolers. For more information, call 740-387-4255.
One more thing – everyone leaves the museum with a FREE box of popcorn! Now, get to Marion, Ohio and see what’s poppin’ for you.
By Frank R. Satullo, The OhioTraveler