College students are known for filling the halls with the smell of popcorn. My roommates always know when I am home because they hear popcorn popping on the stove! So for the love of popcorn here is a story by my grandpa about his college days! When he sold popcorn kernels throughout the halls of Washington State College (now University).
There was an odd shaped piece of farm land on the wrong side of the ditch on the Southeast corner of our eighty acre farm in the Roza. The Roza is an irrigation district north of Prosser, Washington. It was originally open range with bunch grass and sage brush. When the government took charge and brought irrigation water all the way from the Ellensburg canyon they allocated eighty acre homesteads to each qualifying family. We, my parents and my two sisters and I, later to be joined by an additional sister were one such family who received a farm for a minimal charge.
When I was fifteen, Joan was seventeen and Tovi was fourteen, our father, Lloyd Bohlke, told us that we could plant, harvest and market whatever we wanted on that little orphan piece of land. The patch was three and one-half acres in area. One edge followed the irrigation ditch in a curve and the other two sides were at right angles to each other. The curve of the ditch swooped into the plot rather than outwards which would have made a more convenient and workable space. The two corners were so pointed that no farm equipment could go into the corner for lack of an opportunity to turn around. We couldn’t even drive a truck and barely a tractor in, to service the plot.
Hope springs eternal; Let’s plant watermelons! Not just a consensus or a plurality but a unanimous decision by we three; Let’s plant watermelons. Everybody likes watermelons. We will take them to Safeway. We will have people coming to buy our watermelons. The sky is the limit.
Plant we did; by hand; with manure; and hoed, and watered and hoed and watered. The watermelon plants burst from the ground; the huge yellow flowers burst from the plants and the watermelons formed and; well you could just feel the biological energy of those watermelons. They were everywhere. Big, green, and magnificent. If you put a lot of manure on virgin farmland, you are going to end up with a lot of watermelons. We did.
Harvest time. We loaded the half ton International pickup truck with side racks with a few, maybe thirty, of our watermelons and we dropped in at Safeway. We found the manager and he said no. He had plenty of watermelons.
The next year we decided to plant a crop which would be less in vogue. We thought to find more of a niche market. We planted squash. Not those little table squash but big bluish-white squash. Each one was to grow to thirty or forty pounds. We had seen squash like that at the Grandview fair. You could even mark them with a nail or a knife with your name or a clever symbol and when they ripened the marks were like scar tissue from a slow healing wound. That part appealed more to me than to my sisters. We grew tons of big bluish-white squash with old scars. Our dad contacted a man named Pete Taggares who agreed to take our squash “on consignment”. “That meant,” said my Dad, “that he would sell the squash for us and then give us the money later.” What we got was a call in the winter from Mr. Taggares who asked my father, “What do you want to do with all this squash?”
One more time. Popcorn. We decided that popcorn would a good choice. If we couldn’t sell in all in one year, we could store it until the next. Again, we had an imaginative marketing scheme. We went to see Mr. Pearl. He was the owner of not just the Princess Theater but also of the Prosser Drive-In out by the airport. Who could need more popcorn than Mr. Pearl? We told Mr. Pearl that we were going to grow popcorn for a 4-H project and would he like to buy some of our popcorn in the fall. He said Yes.
Again we tilled the soil, planted the seed, and for harvest we had a specialized combine come in and harvest the corn. We even had the corn properly dried and bagged, first in plastic and then in burlap with a logo on the outside. It was an expensive process. I am sure our parents paid for this process because by now the three of us were in high school and couldn’t show a nickel of profit from our former agricultural enterprises with our beloved three and one-half acres. Our yield was at 2500 lbs per acre which was less the numbers given from Nebraska of 2900 lbs per acre. Our “second place finish” was probably due to the pointy ends on our hard to cultivate plantation. At any rate we ended up with about 8000 lbs of shelled and packaged popcorn. This converts to 100, 80 lb. bags.
My friend Norman Schaad and I loaded more than half of the bags on my families 1953 flatbed GMC truck. It was hard work. Neither of us had shirts on when we arrived in front of the Princess Theater in Prosser. Angle parking for cars was the standard so we just stopped in the right hand lane and let her idle, which sounded like a gasp and a cough from a large animal operating at low rpm. Like many trucks from the Rosa, the exhaust pipe and muffler had been replaced by sprinkler pipes. It is a wonder that any of us farm boys can hear a thing today.
Norm minded the truck while I went in to check on the situation. Where they wanted the popcorn etc. The only person available was a young lady in the ticket booth. I explained to her, “We have the popcorn that Mr. Pearl ordered. Where shall we put it?”
“Just there.” she said, pointing to the space across the lobby beneath the poster of an upcoming film. “I will take care of it later”
“Thank you.” I said. She was cute. She must be new in town.
I returned to the truck. “Let’s do it Norm.”
We proceeded to take the bags of popcorn, one by one, into the theater. We stacked them there in the lobby. After about a half an hour, the lobby was about half full and the truck was still half loaded. The young lady came out from the booth, looked outside at the heaving and smelly truck, and said, “could you guys wait a minute? I had better go find Mr. Pearl.”
We waited and here came Mr. Pearl. He kept saying over and over in a medium yet somewhat stressful way, “What is this? What is this? What is this?” As he backed away from the bags and saw the two of us sweaty farmboys, still with no shirts, and the GMC out on the street beyond the propped open glass doors, his color changed or I should say disappeared. He became short of breath even. To his credit, he didn’t yell or become angry, he was just so confounded by the whole scene there in the lobby.
I took the initiate. “Don’t you remember, Mr. Pearl? You told me you would buy our popcorn for your theater. This isn’t all of it. We have more at home.”
“Oh my goodness”, he said. “This is a big misunderstanding. I thought you would bring a small amount to try or something. In fact, I have a contract with a big company who supplies the popcorn for the machines. I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”
It was a long way back up the hill. We stored the corn in the garage. This agriculture thing really had us down and out for the count. That fall Joan left for WSC. Tovi and I didn’t plant the three and a half acres that next spring. We still had the corn. Lot’s of people got popcorn for Christmas that winter.
Following graduation the next spring, I worked on the farm and in the fall I headed to WSU to earn a degree in math and science. We still had all that popcorn in the garage so I put several bags in the trunk of my 47 Nash. When I moved into the third floor of McAllister Hall, I put the popcorn in the bottom of the big closet. When October came, I began to sell popcorn. I would sell unpopped popcorn for 25 cents for a whole quart or I would sell popped popcorn for ten cents for a small bag or whatever. Anyway, for the first time in four years of farming that three and a half acres in paradise, I had actual income. I was making twenty dollars a week or so from the popcorn which was really good since gas was 25 cents per gallon and the cost of a pack of Winstons was the same. When I went home for Christmas break I had returned with another five or six bags. My corn supply was more than adequate.
Sales dropped when the weather got nice in the Spring. We were all outside more in the evenings and by this time many of us were up on the hill mooning over one coed or another. The corn just sat there in the closet.
Near the end of the semester, we had a dorm meeting. Our student rep introduced the house mother who started right in with some harsh words. “You men on the second floor have to clean up your act. You have been bringing food onto the floor and not taking care of it properly. Now you have a very serious problem with mice. We have found mice in several rooms on the west end and even in the custodians room and the shower rooms. This has got to stop!”
The rest of us, I was living on the third floor, thought it was funny. 2nd floor guys were slobs and deserved to be chewed out by Momma McCluskey. Go Momma!
Two weeks later, finals were over and it was time to head back to the Yakima Valley. My roommate said he would help me take out the bags of popcorn. When we got down to layer next to the bottom layer of bags we noticed that it was a little smelly. When we got to the bottom layer, Oh My God. There were holes in the bags, mouse leavings, and finally the nests; some with infants, teenage mice running about, it was bad. As soon as we disrupted their habitat, they headed for the back of the closet and down the gap through the floor to the second level of the dorm. Rip, my roommate, and I, cleaned things up the best we could and headed out. Finally, the popcorn was out of my life along with the watermelons and the squash. I will always admire every farmer for as long as I live. It is not for me.
By: Peter Bohlke