In addition to the building itself, one of our most well known artifacts is the 1919 Cretor popcorn wagon formerly owned by Henry Sansone. This truck has popped corn for three generations of local residents, and is still used by the museum for special events, such as the Taste of Champaign-Urbana.
Hundreds of thousands of past and present residents of the twin cities are familiar with this bright red popcorn truck. It has been making popcorn for us for more than 75 years. Here is a little of its story and of Henry Sansone, its owner for most of this time.
In 1919, a horse-drawn popcorn wagon was ordered from the Cretor company, an already-famous maker of popcorn popping equipment. It was delivered to Bloomington, Illinois. We can guess that it popped corn there for a time, but in 1921 the horse-drawn wagon was mounted on a Ford Model T pickup truck chassis, and the popcorn wagon became a popcorn truck.
The Model T engine and chassis gave up in 1940, and Mr. Sansone purchased from Sullivan Chevrolet a 1940 Chevrolet convertible which had been damaged in shipping. The Cretor popcorn wagon was moved to this chassis in 1940 and remains this way.
Between 1924 and 1974, the Sansone popcorn truck operated at many locations in Champaign. The place most-remembered was on the west side of Neil Street, just south of Church, in front of Kresge’s 5 and 10 cent store. At other times, it was parked outside movie theaters, as here in the photo*. Mr. Henry Sansone has set up in front of the Rialto Theater on Church street. The date is approximately 1952. The Park Theater, shown in the background, is the present location of the Art theater.
Following the sale of the popcorn truck by Mr. Sansone’s family in 1974, it was owned and operated by Joan Macomber until 1977. She often parked the truck on Sixth street in the middle of campus and sometimes on Fourth street near Memorial Stadium. Many former students remember this better than the “downtown” sales by the Sansone family.
The truck was purchased in 1977 by a county historic preservation committee and entrusted to the then newly-formed Champaign County Historical Museum. The color picture shows the truck at the time it was purchased by the museum, more than 20 years ago. The Museum operated the truck for several years at special events in Champaign, Urbana, and Monticello. Its age was showing, however. By 1982 the 63-year old steam popper became unsafe, and was replaced by an electric popping kettle…made by the original Cretor company!
The 45 year old Chevrolet running gear was also giving up, and it became harder to drive the truck to special events. In the late 1980s, the C-U Mass Transit District maintenance shop workers took on the project of updating the truck on the inside. A 1967 Chevrolet engine, transmission, and rear axle were installed, and the chassis rebuilt with power steering and brakes. It is in this rebuilt condition that the popcorn truck is operated today by the Museum. Many thanks to the MTD workers and management!
* Photo courtesy of the collection of the Champaign County Historical Society, as maintained in the historical archives of the Urbana Free Library, Urbana, IL.