Basically the only difference today is that it’s operated by the Granite Falls Kiwanis Club. Les Bergquist, a member of the Kiwanis Club and a resident of Granite Falls, said the first people that owned the stand were two brothers named Fred and Jule Ernston. “The first documentation we have of the stand goes back to 1922; and it was by all accounts a portable popcorn stand, probably one that was pushed in the cart or something like that.” The portable stand was located on the corner of 8th Avenue and Prentice Street which is right at the end of the foot bridge in Granite Falls, another well-known landmark in the city.
Sometime in the 1920s the popcorn stand was permanently built on the spot it’s currently located. Bergquist said they believe the reason the stand is located where it is stems from the earlier days of the movie theaters. “Granite Falls had a number of movie theaters. Just two storefronts down on Prentice there was a movie theater called The Granite. Back in those days, movie theaters did not have their own concessions, and of course, supply and demand came into effect, and movie goers wanted to have something to eat when they went in to see the movies, just like they do today.”
One of the best treats back then and today is popcorn, he said. A lot of street venders set up their vending stands right in front of the movie theaters back in those days so the moviegoers would have something to eat. “This was much to the dismay of the movie theater owners because they didn’t like all the mess in the movie theaters, but it didn’t take long for the theater owners to figure out they were missing out on a bunch of revenue and profits, so they started selling their own concessions as well.” That, Bergquist said, is why they think the popcorn stand is located where it is today, because of that old theater. The old theater building is still standing and is currently housing a photography business.
The Ernstons operated the popcorn stand until 1945 when Jule died. In 1950 Fred died, and his son, Bernett, and his wife, Arlene, took over the popcorn stand. “It was in the family for a long, long time; and we have records from 1969 that Fred and a Chuck Ernston, and I’m assuming Chuck is a son but I’m not sure about that, built the current popcorn stand that we have right now.”
Bergquist figures the original popcorn stand deteriorated and had to be replaced. Bernett operated it up to 1974 when he died and left the stand to his wife, who died in 1981. “From 1922 to 1981 we know it was in the same Ernston family. Then relatives, Tom and Barb Agre, who still reside in the area, owned and operated it from 1982 to 1985. “Then it started changing hands quite often with different families. In 1997, the prior owners, David and Bill Kafka, donated it to the Granite Falls Kiwanis. He was a member at that time. He decided to make a donation to the Kiwanis, and since then we’ve been operating it.”
Bergquist said Kiwanis International is the parent organization of the Granite Falls Kiwanis. “We’re a chapter of Kiwanis International, and they’re celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. The year 1939 is when the Granite Falls Kiwanis was organized, so we’ve been around quite a while as well.”
Right now the Granite Falls Kiwanis has about 35 members, and they operate the popcorn stand solely on volunteer labor. The stand is open seasonally from May 1 through Labor Day, and for the past three to four years, by popular demand, they’ve been keeping it open on weekends well into September. “Last year, the first Saturday in October was the last day of operation for the season.” He said they keep the popcorn stand open seven days a week from 7-9:30 p.m. Again, it’s all volunteer labor.
“The net revenues that have been generated off the popcorn stand continue to increase. Last year, the net revenue generated was about $16,000.
Bergquist went on to say the mission of Kiwanis is to serve the youth, youth organizations, and the youth functions around the community. All the net revenues that are generated are donated to various youth-type activities.
“We’re proud to say we support a lot of them, all the way from reading programs to scholarships to high school seniors. There’s a multitude of different functions we support. That’s the one function we’re proud of with the popcorn stand.”
The other side is the service to the community. “The stand is a real icon in Granite. It’s been around forever. Customers come from far and wide to patronize the popcorn stand. It’s just amazing.”
Bergquist said it’s a lot of fun to work at the popcorn stand in the evenings. “You can meet people you never knew existed. Not only do they come from Granite Falls but area towns as well. We have people that have lake homes in the Alexandria area, and they’ll come specifically to Granite on their way back to South Dakota.” Bergquist said he always asks people who they are and where they’re from. “They always seem to have a story on why they stopped. Anybody that’s graduated from Yellow Medicine East that comes back to Granite for a class reunion or a family reunion, oh boy, they make a special effort to stop here at the popcorn stand. So again, it’s a service to the community as well.”
The popcorn stand is 36 square feet in size, so they don’t have a lot of room to expand to different products, nor do they want to.
“We kind of have a specialty business. Our main product is the buttered popcorn.” They also have caramel corn as well which they purchase from another vender and sell in bags. They also have 1919 root beer on tap and that also has ties to Granite Falls.
“1919 root beer is a root beer brand that is only sold in kegs. The man who made the root beer was Al Arneson, a native of Granite Falls, and who lives in Sleepy Eye today. He developed this recipe for 1919 Classic American Draft Root Beer back in the ‘60s in remembrance of prohibition. He contracted with Schell’s brewery in New Ulm to make the root beer.” Root beer is not brewed, Bergquist said. Like any other pop, it’s a mixture of ingredients and is carbonated. “But he contracts with us and strictly sells it in kegs, no bottles or anything. Ask anybody who’s had it, it’s the best root beer ever.”
Andrew Volstead, who lives in Granite Falls, was one of the legislators that sponsored the prohibition legislation, Bergquist said, so Granite has close ties to prohibition. Prohibition went out in 1919, and that’s why the root beer is called 1919. Many breweries went out of business at that time, and the ones that survived switched over to making soft drinks and candy, and there were a multitude of other things they did to survive during prohibition.
In 1933, prohibition got repealed and the brewers started up again, including Schell’s Brewery, which survived that whole prohibition. “We’re proud of the fact we sell 1919 root beer here. It’s all in kegs and we sell it in plastic covered cups.” He said they also have water, and frozen snicker bars, which are very popular.
Bergquist went on to say they pop three quarters of a ton of popcorn every year out of the little stand. Last year they went through eleven and a half cases of butter. There’s 36 pounds in a case, so they used upwards of about 400 pounds of butter. They also go through lots of salt. “Popcorn salt is kind of a special salt. Salt is sodium chloride period, but popcorn salt gets ground finer and it’s almost like a dust when it goes on.” There’s no secret to their secret ingredient, he said, but they pop the popcorn in coconut oil. “That is the key to the flavor of the popcorn…that along with topping it with butter. You can’t find anything better for your arteries than that, but it works.” They also sold 42, 8-gallon kegs of root beer.
“We’re so proud of the community and how they support the popcorn stand. If we didn’t have the support of the community the popcorn stand wouldn’t be there.”
There is also another interesting side note to the popcorn stand. Bergquist said Kenneth and Tami Timm, who reside in Granite Falls, reportedly met in 1966 at the popcorn stand. “They met down there one evening and the rest is history. They started dating and ended up getting married, all thanks to the popcorn stand.” Several efforts to contact them for comments was unsuccessful.
The popcorn stand is very unique in that it’s designed to look like a popcorn box you might see in a movie theatre. It’s a traditional popcorn style box.