Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Popcorn wagon a Pittsfield staple for generations
Each spring in the 1950s, I remember the arrival of the Popcorn Wagon that would be parked in front of the bus stop at Park Square beside the Berkshire County Savings Bank.
The popcorn was so tasty and people waiting for buses kept the wagon busy. Also, who could forget the pigeons that congregated around the wagon for free handouts?
When I visit my hometown for the Fourth of July, I am pleased to see that the old wagon is still around. It is an antique that was built in 1906 by the Cretor's Co. of Chicago that is still in business today.
The wagon was a Model C, originally built to be drawn by horses. It was brought to Pittsfield from South Dakota in 1909 by local resident, Daniel "Stuffy" McGinnis. Back then the slightly used wagon cost $200.
For 10 years, Stuffy operated it on North Street before moving it to Park Square. He did quite well peddling popcorn, even through the Depression years. Stuffy was able to winter in Florida each season from his popcorn income. During one parade, he sold 4,000 bags of popcorn at a nickel apiece, which earned him in one day what the popcorn wagon originally cost.
Over the years, city leaders had tried to move the McGinnis' popcorn wagon from the street onto the sidewalk. Because little kids wouldn't be able to reach the window, it was kept on the street and remained there for more than 80 years. After Stuffy passed away in 1941, his son Harry ran the enterprise for 16 years and then turned it over to his three sons. However, the brothers had other careers and so Harry sold the Park Square Popcorn Wagon in 1956.
Pittsfield Police Officer Earl Borden bought the wagon for $500 as a business for his sons. As the boys grew and moved on with their careers, Earl's wife, Theresa, and daughters Margaret and Theresa took over the operation. Margaret ("Maggie"), who began selling popcorn at age 8, became the official owner of the business in 1970. Maggie recalls at least three times the wagon was hit by buses and once by a car, but it was always quickly restored and back in service. One time it was stripped of paint and redone in white, but due to public outcry, it was quickly returned to red. During their ownership, the Bordens had converted the wagon's steam-powered popper to gas and then to electricity.
Pop Corner Bank
In 1973, the Berkshire County Savings Bank worked out an arrangement with Ms. Borden to call the bank the "Pop Corner Bank." Over three decades, the bank used the wagon for advertising with the sale and/or distribution of promotional items with the wagon logo, such as trivets, tiles, small banks, key chains and golf balls.
In 1977, a downtown business organization and the bank welcomed the spring arrival of the wagon with a parade led by the Pittsfield High School marching band and a corn kernel-shaped hot air balloon.
In 1986, the bank financed the restoration of the popcorn wagon, and in 1996, Maggie Borden did another refurbishing and painting. But as North Street's business district began to decline, Maggie decided to sell the wagon in 2003 to Berkshire Bank.
Following the purchase, the bank generously let the Elder Services program operate it for fundraising purposes. The bank has continued having various social service agencies such as Goodwill operate the wagon during the Fourth of July Parade, Third Thursday and other events.
The popcorn wagon has been located at 99 North St. in front of the bank's building, where I remember England Brothers. It is a given when I visit that I buy a box or bag of that great popcorn to enjoy as I watch our hometown parade.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books, go to berkshirecarousel.com.
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