WATERVILLE — Holding a pink umbrella to shield her face from the sunshine, Darlene Hoban’s bright, wide smile told the story of the past 40 years in Waterville.
It was the town’s Bullhead Days parade, June 2006, and Hoban had been chosen as the grand marshal, an honor she described as the highlight of her life.
Hoban was an easy choice for the position, and actually, she was perhaps a bit overdue for the role. She was — and continued to be for another five years — the town’s beloved “popcorn lady,” a longtime Main Street business owner of The Popcorn Shoppe whom some had coined “Grandma Waterville.”
In 1965 she had purchased the summertime popcorn wagon that later expanded to offer cotton candy, mini doughnuts, hot dogs, pickles and other treats. Every summer for the next 46 years, that’s where she could be found most nights, chatting up customers, keeping an eye on Waterville’s youth and making batch after batch of fresh corn, which regular customers said could be smelled from blocks away.
“She would sit down there for four hours, even if she only had three customers, just to have someone to talk to,” said Hoban’s daughter, Carmen Wessels of Waterville.
The faces she waved to in that parade car in 2006 were the reasons being grand marshal meant so much to her. She looked out over the crowd and saw so many friends she had made living most of her life in that town of 1,800 people.
And they’re the faces she often misses so much now. Macular degeneration is taking Hoban’s eyesight, and she can’t drive to work anymore. So last year turned out to be Hoban’s last in the popcorn business.
Hoban, 85, and her family opened up The Popcorn Shoppe one last time during Bullhead Days this June. And then they put the business up for sale.
“I met so many wonderful people,” Hoban said. “It was always so good to see them.”
A lifetime on Main Street
Ed and Irene Courtney moved to Waterville after Hoban was born in 1926 to help in her grandfather’s grocery store and restaurant, called Corcoran’s.
Hoban and her two younger sisters were practically raised there, she said. In 1941, Ed took over the business, which was attached to the Courtneys’ house. And in the mid-1960s after both parents had died, Hoban’s sister Carollea Gilomen and her husband took over the family business. (It would later be sold out of the family and is now the Waterville Cafe.)
Hoban had married Jerry Hoban in June 1948, and they had four girls. And even though being a mom kept her plenty busy, she wanted a business of her own. Before Irene died, she encouraged Hoban to buy a small popcorn wagon in 1965 that had been operating next to their restaurant/grocery on Main Street, owned by a friend of Hoban’s, Lil Michaels.
“I grabbed it,” said Hoban, who was in her late 30s. “I paid $250.”
Hoban was thrilled to own her own business, proof of which could be seen in the big, boisterous smile she wears in a photograph with her husband in front of the wagon. It’s the smile she’s often wearing in photographs and which regular customers say she’s known for.
“Oh yes, absolutely. Just a loving person,” said Gary Pittmann, former Waterville police officer and customer since 1965.
Hoban opened the popcorn wagon for business each year in April or May, depending upon the weather, and closed it in October. Hours were 6:30-10 p.m. She popped Snappy brand popcorn with salt and oil in a popcorn machine with a cast iron kettle. She sold bags for 10 cents apiece.
Hoban’s girls helped out at the wagon. Sometimes, when nights got late, they napped there, too.
“They laid on the popcorn bags and went to sleep,” Hoban said.
From the very first summer, Hoban said business was good, although she wasn’t sure what her annual income from The Popcorn Shoppe was in the beginning, nor what it grew to over the years, for that matter.
Wessels said it wasn’t enough to support a family. Just a boost to help out. So Jerry worked at a dry cleaners in Owatonna, and for 13 years Hoban worked overnights at Brown Printing in Waseca. After Brown, Hoban worked at Casey’s General Store making doughnuts. Gilomen would help close up The Popcorn Shoppe when Hoban had to get to work.
But business at The Popcorn Shoppe had gotten better with each year, Wessels said, enough to make a couple of expansions.
In the 1960s a tornado hit downtown Waterville. Hoban went down to the wagon as soon as she could to see if any damage had been done.
“It busted the windows,” she said.
“The tornado had picked up that little wagon and (moved it),” Wessels said.
Hoban fixed the windows and operated out of the wagon for a while longer until the piece of land where the wagon sat on Main Street went up for sale. She and Jerry bought it and built a permanent concrete structure there, albeit a small one at first.
“He only wanted 10 by 12,” Hoban said with a shrug.
The building had no heat or air conditioning, so The Popcorn Shoppe still only operated seasonally. But the permanent structure allowed for a product expansion and eventually, in 1980, a building expansion. Hoban bought a mini doughnut machine and a cotton candy machine, among other things.
Soon they were selling hotdogs, pickles, licorice, pop and nachos, among other summer favorites. Business continued to grow, which for a while included selling mini doughnuts at Wal-Mart in Faribault and making dozens of bags of cotton candy for area functions.
Popcorn remained the staple. Hoban remembers that each year she bought six to eight 50-pound bags of Snappy, and every year toward the end of the season, she’d have to buy more. Bullhead Days was always her busiest time of year.
“It always went very well,” she said. “Everybody came for my mini doughnuts.”_
During Bullhead Days this year, a large “size 12” bag of Hoban’s popcorn was $5. But Hoban kept the price of a small bag at 75 cents.
“The kids can’t afford more than that,” Hoban said.
Over the years Hoban had continued to offer penny candies for a penny, she said, until her daughter told her she was actually losing money. Then she had to up the price to 2 cents.
“Everything just kept going up,” she said.
Upping prices wasn’t anything Hoban was interested in doing. She wasn’t in the popcorn business to make her fortune. She was in it simply to be able to keep doing it.
Her customers wanted that, too. On a hot day in July, Hoban sat in the nearly empty shop with Wessels and Gilomen. Hoban’s Century 21 real-estate agent was about to show the property to potential buyers, and Hoban sat near the popcorn machine — which she only had to replace once in about 50 years. As she talked about events she catered and memories of her daughters helping in the shop, one curious Waterville resident after another popped their heads into the open doorway.
Beverly Brown-Nelson of Waterville had been one of Hoban’s most loyal customers, having patronized the little shop since 1970.
“Well, you could smell it two blocks away,” Brown-Nelson said. “It was in the night air.”
Pittmann was an officer in Waterville from 1965 to 1969, and he went on to work with Hoban at Brown Printing. He and his wife moved to Waterville in 1965 and became frequent customers over the years.
In fact, for the past 20 years or so, Pittmann made a nightly summertime ritual of going for his small bag of corn. For the past nine years, he drove down with his dog, Tucker. The company drew him to Main Street as much as the popcorn, he said.
“I’ve known the family for years,” he said. “I knew her daughters and even her granddaughter.”
Wessels hired someone last year to drive Hoban to and from work, but in the end, it was too costly and Hoban had no choice but to retire. And even though she’s 85 years old and has worked her whole life — and even though the cost of business just kept rising year after year — Hoban wasn’t ready for retirement. Not yet.
Still, the family knew Bullhead Days this year would be Hoban’s last days as owner of The Popcorn Shoppe.
“Lo and behold, the whole family came home and helped,” Wessels said. “It was emotional for me and my sister, Rochelle. But not really for my mom. She was in all her glory. She was so happy. Her family was there, and we did all the work, and she did all the visiting. She just loved to visit with people.”
Those people would have kept Hoban on the job for years to come if it were up to her, she said.
“She definitely would have kept it open if the good Lord would have allowed it,” Wessels said. “There were certain people who came down every night for their bag of corn.”
“Oh yes, I would have kept on,” Hoban said. “I miss that popcorn.”
After almost 50 years popping corn, Hoban says she still has a hankering for it. Wessels has a small popcorn popper that they use when they want a snack.
Of course, it’ll never be as good it was from The Popcorn Shoppe. And it doesn’t make up for getting to see all those faces — the ones lining the streets of that parade in 2006 — who used to come, one by one, to her window on Main Street.
Seeing all those people that day, many of them yelling her name, showed Hoban how many friends she had made over the years. And in some ways, now, she feels like she’s having to let them go.
“Oh yeah, I do miss it,” Hoban said with just a glimmer of a smile. “Those were the gold ol’ days.”