by Erin Doane
One of the most famous sights at Wisner Park’s summer market is the restored antique popcorn truck that was originally owned and operated by Frank Romeo from 1930 until his retirement in 1971. Many people who remember Romeo and his truck have fond, nostalgic memories of the kind man who sold popcorn, peanuts, and other treats in the park. Not many are aware of the struggles that he went through to become a beloved fixture in downtown.
"The Popcorn Man" by Lori Mustico
The website https://www.elmira-ny.com/popcorn/index.shtml has a wonderful history of the work undertaken by the Popcorn Truck Preservation Society in the late 1980s to restore the “Red Wagon” to its former glory. It is definitely worth reading about all the time and effort that went into bringing the popcorn truck back to life, so to speak. My focus here is going to be on the truck’s first life with Frank Romeo.
Constantina and Frank Romeo with the popcorn truck, 1971
Frank Romeo was an Italian immigrant who came to Elmira in 1912 at the age of 17. He was drafted into the military in 1918 and served in World War I. In 1922, he began his nearly 50-year career in the popcorn business. At that time, he had fallen ill and lost his job. He told a Star-Gazette reporter years later that his doctor told him “if I didn’t get more air I might as well build my own box. So instead of building a box, I built a push cart. And I started selling popcorn.” The southeast corner of North Main and West Church Streets in Wisner Park seemed the perfect place to get fresh air and sell popcorn he popped by hand over a coal stove on his cart.
In those early days, however, Romeo had not settled on that corner of the park as the only location of his business. In July 1929, he had a popcorn and soft drink stand on West Miller Street in front of the Southside playground. On the night of July 10th, a drunk driver crashed his vehicle into the stand. Romeo received $335 from the driver in $10 weekly installments to cover the damages done. A clerk who happened to be at the stand at the time also received $60 for hospital expenses and to replace his clothing that was ruined in the crash.
"Little Red Wagon Set" by Talitha Botsford
In 1930, a local car dealer made a specially designed popcorn wagon on a two-ton chassis for Frank Romeo’s business. With this new truck, he settled into his corner near Wisner Park at North Main and West Church Streets and had no desire to leave. Even his arrest that year for violating section 154 of Article 12 of the city ordinances would not move him. The text of the law reads:
"No person shall permit any vehicle owned or controlled by him to stop upon or anywise encumber any public streets or places within the City of Elmira…for a longer period than 15 minutes along any block while engaged in selling or offering for sale any provisions or merchandise;…and no person shall erect or maintain any booth or stand, nor place any barrels, boxes, crates or other obstructions upon any such public street or places for the purpose of selling or exposing for sale any provision or merchandise."
Romeo’s arrest came after Alderman John B. Sheehe registered a complaint on the floor of the Common Council against the operation of freelance street peddlers. He introduced a resolution directing police Chief Elvin D. Weaver to act to enforce the ordinance. Romeo’s friends and fellow military veterans rallied around him after his arrest, believing he was being discriminated against. No other merchants had been arrested even though nearly every grocer or fruit dealer in the city was in violation of the ordinance for having boxes and crates full of merchandise on the sidewalks in front of their businesses.
Romeo pled not guilty before the Recorder’s Court and was represented by Attorney Harry Markson, a veteran himself of World War I. After the war, veterans were given state licenses to operate as peddlers. Romeo had such a license as well as a city permit to operate his business. The city’s recorder found Romeo not guilty of violating the ordinance regulating the operation of street peddlers and ruled that he had a legal right to sell his wares any place in the city at any time because of the ex-serviceman’s license he held. The recorder also noted that any peddler without such a license was in violation of the law and would be punished.
Elmira Star Gazette, April 26, 1930
Romeo’s victory in court helped establish him and his red popcorn wagon as fixtures in downtown Elmira for years to come. There were still some bumps along the way, though. On June 9, 1931 his truck was damaged extensively by a fire that was believed to have been caused by defective wiring. A leak in the gasoline tank added fuel to the fire. During World War II, butter became scarce and rather than use a substitute that would bring down the famous quality of his popcorn, he shuttered the business and did other work. At the end of the war, he returned to his parking spot on the corner of North Main and West Church Streets.
Even when the city put in parking meters, public outcry led the city to set aside the parking space for Romeo for as long as he wanted it. And he stayed there until he retired in 1971. He was in his 70s at the time and had become a bit jaded by conditions in the area. His popcorn wagon was vandalized on occasion, once having its tires slit. In an interview several years after his retirement he said, “It was those park people. The hippies. I couldn’t see staying open just for them.”
Popcorn truck on the highway, 1971
After retiring, Romeo sold his popcorn wagon to Kenneth White, a school teacher, for $1,000. White intended to use the truck as a source of summer income but he only ended up selling popcorn from it a half-dozen times before parking it in a garage. Nearly 20 years later, the newly-restored popcorn truck made its triumphant return to Wisner Park. Now, the truck lives full-time in a specially-constructed brick and glass building near the corner Romeo had claimed as his own and it comes out to provide warm, fresh popcorn at the Wisner Market.
Erin Doane is the curator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see this and more of their blog, go to http://chemungcountyhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com