Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Time Machine: Iowa was once No. 1 in popcorn
Plant in Vinton once produced tons of the treat
Mar. 28, 2023 5:00 am
Hardly anyone has heard of the Chicago-based Shotwell Manufacturing Co. popcorn plant in Arthur, east of Ida Grove in northwest Iowa.
Sitting in the heart of what was then known as popcorn country, the elevator and cribs were built around 1913.
In 1918, the Carroll Times reported about 18 million tons of popcorn had been raised the previous year around Arthur and Odebolt, “the largest popcorn markets in the United States.”
The plant at Arthur was the largest popcorn processor in the country when it was sold for $50,000 — about $850,000 in today’s dollars — to Shotwell’s main competitor, the Cracker Jack Co. of Chicago, in August 1925.
Cracker Jack began adding more structures to the property’s five lots of popcorn cribs and buildings.
People loved Iowa popcorn.
Dr. Stuart Bowman, of Stamford, Conn., returned to Maquoketa for a visit in 1928.
“If some enterprising person would open a popcorn stand or run a wagon on the streets of New York City, and advertise truthfully, ‘We sell only Iowa popcorn,’ he would make a fortune,” Bowman told a reporter. “People in the Eastern cities who used to live in Iowa are positively homesick for this good Iowa delicacy, and there is none to be had.”
Acting on his suggestion, his sister, Nora Goldin, shipped her brother two barrels of popcorn at Christmastime. It’s unlikely any of it was strung for decorating a Christmas tree.
Another Maquoketa native thoughtfully included a corn popper when he shipped a bag of Iowa popcorn to his brother in Los Angeles.
On Dec 5, 1931, fire destroyed the Cracker Jack popcorn plant in Arthur.
“The blaze swept through the elevator and shelling and cleaning plant of the Cracker Jack Popcorn Co., destroyed expensive machinery and caused damage estimated at $50,000.” according to a wire service story in The Gazette.
Firefighters were able to save “several hundred thousand bushels of popcorn on the cob that was stored in the company’s cribs,” the story stated.
By 1935, though, the storage cribs — that once had held 7 million pounds of ear corn and 1.75 million pounds of shelled popcorn — were empty.
Popcorn acreage had expanded in Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado. Iowa popcorn production was down, but not out.
Bert Donley of Vinton and his son, Marion, formed a partnership in 1947 to set up a popcorn concession. They planted 7 acres of popcorn near Vinton but soon discovered demand for their product far outpaced their supply.
In September 1949, the Vinton City Council granted the Donleys a permit to build a 30-by-40-foot popcorn processing plant on West Fourth Street.
Equipped with a sheller, a cleaning machine, fanning mill and grader, the new plant processed 20 tons of popcorn in 1949. The plant had the capacity to handle 50 tons.
Soon, the Donley name became synonymous with popcorn in Eastern Iowa.
In 1953, the Donleys added a 12-by-20-foot retail building to the front of their plant. Customers could buy packaged popcorn kernels, popped corn, popping oil, poppers, salt and other items. It was the only company in the country to process and retail popcorn under one roof.
“We started selling packaged corn in 2-, 7- and 50-pound lots,” Marion said in a 1954 Gazette interview. “Since then, we’ve boosted our operation to 160 acres of land and expanded our plant considerably. We’re raising around 100 acres of popcorn a year now.”
In 1961, Iowa was ranked fourth in the nation in popcorn production. By 2022, it had dropped to ninth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Donley Jager of Cedar Rapids bought the Vinton Popcorn Co. in January 1966.
Jager planted 175 acres of a small yellow popcorn that was more popular than the white popcorn that had been grown.
In 1972, Jager introduced “Krunchy Nuggets.” The snack soon became four times more popular than regular popcorn.
Jager added a 24-by-40-foot warehouse and cooking room to the plant in February 1973. Another addition in September housed an oil storage tank, packaging room, storage room and cooking room.
Business at the Vinton Popcorn Co. business was already declining when Kathy Kloss took over the store in 1994. It closed three years later.
The advent of microwave popcorn was to blame, according to Brian Clarke, a spokesman for the American Popcorn Co. in Sioux City, which made Jolly Time Popcorn.
The Flood of 2008 damaged the former popcorn plant in Vinton, and the storage bins were demolished in 2011.
A Vinton-Shellsburg High School entrepreneurship class wanted to revive the Vinton Popcorn brand in 2012. They did their market research, solicited donations from Vinton businesses, bought a scale and popcorn (grown in Iowa, though not in Vinton) and opened a storefront.