Granite Falls’ iconic popcorn stand recently received some world-wide recognition when it was featured in the December issue of the Kiwanis International Magazine.
The popcorn stand was featured in an article that highlighted interesting and notable “Kiwanis properties” in locations at a global level. Included was a mini “Kiwanis train” in Enid, Oklahoma that carries an average of 15,000 passengers a year along a 1.2 mile track and a Kiwanis clubhouse in Kopavogur-Eldey, Iceland that had once been the original store for one of the Icelandic nation’s largest hardware companies.
According to member Les Bergquist, the Kiwanis Club of Granite Falls was contacted by the magazine sometime after a KARE 11 “Land of 10,000 Stories” article and video about the popcorn stand brought notoriety to the Granite Falls icon in May. A photographer was dispatched to capture its image, and as it happened Les’s son, William, is featured in the spread.
“The popcorn stand is such a great asset,” said Les. “Not only does it generate money which Kiwanis inturn uses to support all sorts of community organizations, but it’s just a great service to the community that people really enjoy coming to. It’s got a lot of notoriety here there and everywhere.”
In light of the magazine article, the Advocate Tribune thought it would be an ideal time to recall the history of the popcorn stand, which is recapped in the following paragraphs from an article written by former A/T staffer Adam Rynkiewich roughly a decade ago.
Jule and Fred start 80 year summer tradition
No one can recall the day, nor even the year, that the popcorn stand first appeared on the riverside corner of Prentice and Seventh Avenue.
Jule and Fred Ernston built the first incarnation of the stand, as far as any record states, in the mid-to-late 1920s on the present location. Some say they recall the stand beside the walking bridge at Prentice Street and Eighth Avenue. Chuck Ernston, grandson to Fred, said that back before Jule and Fred made the popcorn stand permanent, when they were only operating a portable stand during the summer months at Granite Falls events, Fred Jr. (who was actually a nephew to Jule and Fred, a son of their sister who died in a house fire) also started a portable popcorn stand and operated mostly at the base of the foot bridge.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Jule and Fred had operated a horse drawn coach, “a sort of glass-enclosed box with seats running down each side and with a couple of steps in the back by which you entered the thing,” according to Jay L. Putnam in his Look Out column in 1950. The coach ran from the east side Milwaukee Road depots to downtown hotels like the Elizabeth Hotel (also known as the Commercial, the Winter and the Keagan) for many years until the advent of the automobile pushed them out of business.
Page 2 of 3 - Jule first began the business in the early 20s with that portable stand already mentioned and a gas operated popper. Chuck Ernston said that though his family was not sure, Fred and Jule’s father, Andrew, the town blacksmith, may have built that first and long-used kettle.
Before the end of the 1920s Fred had joined his brother in the business and the two constructed a permanent, though they may not have foreseen how permanent, structure, where the present stand, built in 1969 now resides.
Jule died in 1945 and Fred in 1950. The two owners that most people still recall, took over after Fred’s death. Bennett Ernston, son of Fred and his wife Arlene grew and harvested their own corn with the help of George Orvall.
In a 1973 article, provided by Chuck Ernston, one of the two sons, Gary is the other, of Bennett. the price of popcorn was still five cents for a bag with no butter and 10 cents for a bag with butter – the same as it was 45 years earlier when the stand was founded.
The price of popcorn did finally go up and the Ernston family did finally hand over the business.
In 1974, Bennett died, leaving Arlene to run the stand until 1981 until her own death. After Arlene’s passing, the stand bounced every few years from one local family to the next. Barb and Tom Agre purchased the stand in 1982 but sold it again in 1985 to Pam and Bill Liester who ran the stand until 1990, when Dean and Dana Baldry and Jeff (Gunnar) and Becky Mensink took over. The Mensinks and Baldrys sold the business to Joe and Janelle (Johnson) Nielsen who in turn sold it in 1997 to Dave and Jill Kafka.
Kiwanis takes over
Then, in 2002 the first service organization, and the first anything other than a private family, took over the stand. The Granite Falls Kiwanis are in their second year of ownership.
“This is pretty unique,” said the Kiwanis Granite Falls Chapter President Lisa Lundell of the service organization owning a business. “No other organization that I am aware of does soemthing quit like this.”
Lundell said that Kiwanis probably would not have had the opportunity to own the business if they had to purchase it, but since the Kafkas donated the business, the Kiwanis have had a great opportunity to raise funds for their children-oriented projects.
“All our profits go to projects we support,” said Lundell. “We have a fund to support the operations at the stand so we are able to give a lot back to the community.”
Page 3 of 3 - The Kiwanis support projects at the Kilowatt Community Center and help the Parks Commission do upkeep on playground equipment around the city, among other projects. One night last week, all the profits went to the DRUM (Discipline Respect and Unity through Music) program at Bert Raney Elementary. The DRUM participants entertained a good-sized crowd at the stand while reaping the financial benefits.
“We want to do things to make kids welcome at the stand. All our profit goes to them so it is important that they also feel welcome and a part of it as well,” said Lundell.
One popcorn stand tradition that has faded a bit is feeding local ducks the “old maids” (unpopped kernels and small bits of older popcorn) every night. In times past, a veritable horde of ducks waited for the night’s leftovers, but as time passed fewer and fewer ducks waddled near the stand. Fred Ernston said in 1973 that the ducks got one bushel of old popcorn a day. Only one pair of local ducks has been regularly around in the past couple of years, said Lundell, and they no longer come up. Still, Lundell said that she has boxes of older popcorn and old maids that the stand gives away for free to anyone hoping to go to the river and feed the ducks there.
So will the Kiwanis break the Ernston family record of some 60 years in the popcorn business?
“We hope,” said Lundell.
The popcorn stand is open every night of the summer from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., including holidays, until August 31.
Information for this article came from many, some unattributed, sources via interviews and from past stories written in the Tribune by Tom Cherveny and by Cheryl Erickson.