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Keeping up tradition

Posted October 01, 2014 in Community Featured, Perry
Rhonda Olson serves popcorn on Willis Avenue, next to the Perry Public Library, each Thursday night. Photo by Juli Probasco-Sower.

Rhonda Olson serves popcorn on Willis Avenue, next to the Perry Public Library, each Thursday night. Photo by Juli Probasco-Sower.

If it’s Thursday in Perry, it’s time for popcorn by the library.

Rhonda Olson has been serving folks popcorn from her stand one night a week since 1995.

The sale of popcorn is much more than a money maker for Olson. After all, on special occasions like Halloween, she just gives away hundreds of bags.

“This is something I have kept doing for the community, and to honor the history of family and Perry,” she says as she scoops some of the freshly popped corn into a flat-bottom, white paper bag.

A gentleman was walking toward the stand.

“He’ll buy at least three bags,” Olson says. “He’s one of my regulars.”

The customer, Gary Ellett of Perry, bought five.

“I buy some for my daughter, grandson, friends, but mostly for me,” he says, turning to Olson. “By the way, where were you last week?”

She just smiled. “I was babysitting grandkids,” she says. Later she explained that people do get upset when she isn’t open.

Olson has good reason to talk about community, history and popcorn in the same sentence.

Her grandparents, G.E. and Ethel Roberts, had a commercial garden on the west end of town, where among many other types of garden produce, they also grew and sold Tom Thumb popcorn. That popcorn had been handed down to their family from her grandfather’s parents, who had been given the Tom Thumb seeds.

Olson’s father, Wilford Roberts, has spent 50 years growing Tom Thumb popcorn as well. It is hulless and smaller, which makes it soft on the palette and tasty on the tongue.

Olson follows in the footsteps of Perry’s Popcorn Lady Celeste Council. Council, who was born in Perry in 1888, ran her small popcorn stand for 49 years. She died in 1969. Her stand is on display at Forest Park and Museum near Perry.

The idea for a second popcorn stand surfaced when members of the class of 1951, who were planning a reunion in 1995, decided they wanted to re-create a Sentimental Journey celebration reminiscent of when the troops came home from WW II.

Roberts went to work building a new stand that mimicked some of the earlier stand’s style, but gave the operator more room. He and Olson sold the popcorn at a nickel for a small bag and a dime for a large bag, in keeping with Celeste Council’s practice. The popcorn was a hit at the class reunion, and they were asked to bring it back for other occasions.

Olson soon began selling popcorn once a week, and before she knew it, she became the new Perry Popcorn Lady.

She now sells the popcorn for 50 cents and 75 cents, but just about everything else is the same. For example, just as Celeste did, Olson gives any military member in uniform free popcorn.

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