(Reprinted from a 1957 Pine Island Record)
A third generation is busy putting the stamp of approval on the wares of Pine Island’s “Mr. Popcorn” – Ray Stoddard. For close to 40 years now Mr. Stoddard has outlasted one competitor after another in the popcorn business.
“Years ago when there was a lot of competition in the popcorn business, my wife decided I should add a sideline – hamburgers,” Mr. Stoddard recalled with a smile. “Guess she must have had the right idea because I outlasted all of them.” he added.
Over the years he has occupied many spots on Main Street. “This spot (his present location next to Baringer’s Shoe Store) is about the best I guess.” Mr. Stoddard said.
At first selling popcorn was just a sideline for Mr. Stoddard. Now it is the chief occupation for the spry, cheerful fellow who will be 80 years old in September. I first started selling popcorn when I was a boy back in Appleton.” He recalled. “It helped make a few extra nickels at the time. I’ve always liked the business.
Mr. Stoddard admits that folks around here don’t eat quite as much popcorn as they used to, but he can remember the day when he sold as much as a ton and a half of popcorn over a summer. While the amount of popcorn folks put away has changed along with many other things, Mr. Stoddard’s prices haven’t. He still sells a nickel bag of corn.
The veteran popcorn man likes to tell a little story to illustrate the length of time he has been in business.
“One Sunday a fellow came up to the stand to buy a bag of popcorn. As I waited on him, he asked if I didn’t remember him. I had to confess that I didn’t. Then he told me that a long time ago when he was a youngster on a farm in the area he had wanted to buy a hamburger and that I had trusted him for a nickel. “He recalled how it had taken him a long time to repay the money and that when he finally did I wouldn’t take it but gave him a sack of popcorn instead.” “After he finished the story I sort of remembered the incident,” Mr. Stoddard said
For years after he moved to Pine Island in 1914, Mr. Stoddard operated a dray service. “I’ve moved a lot of pianos and safes into different Main Street places.” he recalled.
How did he get the pianos into the upstairs apartments? “The stairways were all so narrow that you couldn’t get a piano up that way so I had to hoist ‘em up the outside of the building and in through the window, he recalled. The last piano Mr. Stoddard moved on Main Street belonged to Lawrence Baringer. Mr. Stoddard recalls wrestling some big safes, too. One he’ll never forget had to be moved upstairs into Dr. C. B. McKaig’s office over the bank. Another stubborn safe was the one he moved in the Reiter store when it was new. In addition to recalling his days as a dray man, Mr. Stoddard remembers many hours put in digging sewers in the Village by hand.
Following is a portion of the program given for Ray & Retta Stoddard on their 60th wedding anniversary in 1959: As the families of old used to gather around the campfire to tell and retell the story of their lives, so we as a clan gather here to relate the interesting things that Retta and Ray remember.
Recalling his courting days, Ray says, “In the 1890’s, a young man with a good pair of driving horses hitched to a “pung” (which was a home made sleigh), a couple of horse blankets, a fur robe, with four or five hot bricks as foot warmers, and a kerosene lantern with a reflector on the dash, would compare to a young man of today, driving a new red Cadillac,” Only the chuck holes in the pioneer roads, called “kiss me quicks”, made driving in the old times more fun.”
Ray was the only child of David Eugene and Mary Freeman Stoddard. He was born near Zumbrota, September 25, 1876. When he was a little lad his family moved by covered wagon from Zumbrota to Appleton. There he attended school, and when be was 16 he set himself up in business by selling popcorn, homemade pies, fruit and cigars on the trains that came thru Appleton. Sometimes he would ride the west bound train to the next stop, and then catch the east bound train back home.
As his business grew, he followed the fairs, popping corn on a gas burner. His mother was his partner, making delicious berry pies and sandwiches for him to sell. He has a record book with all receipts and expenditures that tell the story.
His grandfather, Albin Stoddard, moved his family from Mazeppa, Minnesota to South Dakota, where they had taken a homestead. There his family started a settlement and named it Mazeppa, South Dakota. He was a staunch Methodist and traveled far and wide preaching in homes and school houses.
When the Indian reservation was opened for settlement, Ray’s mother and father staked a claim and built a sod shanty, which served as their first home.
It was here that Ray met a pretty, pert little lass, Retta Merritt, who had moved to Dakota from Michigan in l887. She was the only child of Frank and Ida Rader Merritt, born August 10, 1881 in Hamler, Ohio. She was four years old when her father died, and her mother took her to Michigan where her grandparents lived. Six years later they moved to South Dakota.
It was very cold and the snow was hip deep, that January 17, 1899, when Retta and Ray drove 22 miles into Watertown to be married. They got their license, made a date with the Methodist minister for 8 o’clock that night, stabled their horses, and went to the hotel where they were married. Total cost of the wedding and honeymoon was $12.65. Friends and relatives had expected them home that night, so they gathered to give them a charivari, but the bride and groom disappointed them. The party finally broke up at 2 am. The newlyweds returned home the next day.
It took less to set up housekeeping 60 years ago. The most expensive item was the deluxe Home Comfort range with a warming oven and a reservoir, costing $65.
Their first home was on a farm 9 miles from Summit, South Dakota. Here Marion was born May 31, 1900.
In 1904 Ray moved his family from Dakota to a farm south of Pine Island. On this farm the first son was born, Benjamin Merritt, named for his grandfather in Ohio.
In March 1906, fire burned their home. The family saved very few of their belongings and barely escaped with their lives. This changed their occupation, for now they moved into town and Ray, with his team Ned and Topsy, started the Sunshine Dray Line. Ned was an old fire horse. Whenever the alarm bell rang he ran to pull the fire cart, with or without a driver.
Ray met all trains at both Northwestern and Chicago Great Western depots, delivering freight, carrying mail, and using the team as a bus service from depot to the hotel.
Ray worked at many trades, the harder the job, the bigger the challenge was to him. He helped dig the basement of the new brick school in 1904, and also had a hand in the work on many other public structures of Pine Island. Harvesting ice was a winter job. Large cakes of ice were packed in sawdust and stored in a large building, then delivered to the homes in the summer time. So as an iceman, Ray had a year round job.
Their home was the second place across the bridge. Maxine was born in this house on December 2, 1908. In 1912, they bought their present home, changing and building on to it from time to time. It was in this house that Merle was born on February 8, 1914. Douglas came along on July 7, 1921.
Ray was always busy. He took a turn as Village Marshal, ran a small restaurant called Ray’s Midnight Inn, was one of the first at every fire as a member of the Fire department for 30 years, but always there was the popcorn and hamburger shop in the evening, This shop has been moved three times. Each move seemed a better location and seemed to better the business. Always, Retta and Ray worked side by side.
Comments from Larry Stoddard, Ray and Retta’s grandson: I always thought of my grandfather as a “renaissance” man. He had many and varied skills and interests. I only new him as an older man, but he was big and according to my dad, very powerful. They not only dug sewers, but he and dad and the Feigal grandsons dug a basement under his house one summer – by hand. They put up stone barn foundations and he helped his son-in-law, Merrill Feigal, with his hardware business and his new Surge business.
He had a distinctive look because as a young man he had polio which left one side of his face muscles affected. On that side his eyelid drooped some and the corner of his mouth hung down as if frowning on one side. Yet he was a gentle and sensitive man.
I spoke on the phone with a woman who grew up in Pine Island. She was calling about cemetery information, but asked if Ray Stoddard was related to me. It seems as a little girl she stopped alone to get some popcorn and had no money. He told her to go across Main Street and get 5 leaves from the City Hall hedge. She did and he gave her a small bag of popcorn. She repeated this all that summer and he always gave her popcorn. She still remembers his kindness to her.
When my sister was young and home from school sick he wrote her a letter although we lived next door. It was written on a piece of paper not much larger than a big postage stamp and a magnifying glass was needed to read it. At the time of the letter writing he was over seventy-five years old.
He did most of the baking at home and much of the cooking. He had a restaurant on Main Street before my time, but I remember seeing the pictures and can’t forget a sign on the wall “Near Beer Sold Here, No Real Beer Near Here!”
He also traveled to fairs selling food with the help of my Dad who developed an aversion to fairs after that. After college I worked at Feigal’s Surge and traveled extensively around Goodhue, Wabasha, Olmsted and Dodge counties. People would ask me if I was related to the “Popcorn Stoddards” as apparently people came from all over for his hamburgers. One of my most vivid memories is seeing Grandpa cleaning his grill top every morning. It was removable and he would bring it home and set it on a large tree stump cut level and flat. He had clean water but no soap, as he told me that soap would spoil the taste of the hamburgers. So he used a red brick and scrubbed the surface till it was clean and shiny rinsing it with clean water. I remember the puddles of water stained red by the abrasion of the brick material. He kept his business simple and high quality. He only sold Popcorn, Soda and Hamburgers and at one time roasted peanuts. He always had some burgers ready for people even up to closing time, which often lead to an unusual breakfast for us of cold hamburgers the next morning.
(Ray Stoddard passed away 7/10/1964)
(Reprinted in Pine Island Area Historical Society Newsletter October 2006)