Ask any collector why he or she does it and you’re likely to get as many different reasons as there are things to collect. Then again, pinpointing the answer could be a challenge. It all goes, or so it would seem, to the mystique and allure of collecting.
Something about the richly colored base, detail in the mechanics, and nostalgic decal sparked my attention. And so it was with the purchase of a circa 1925 model 2EF Auto-Grand Holcomb and Hoke Butter-Kist popcorn machine some 25 years ago that my passion for popcorn was ignited.
It wasn’t long afterward, while attending an antique advertising show, that I spotted a popcorn box with a picture of my recent acquisition. Never one to doubt the belief that “things always happen in threes,” it was only a matter of time before my collection would expand next into advertising, having come across a vintage magazine advertisement for an early Holcomb and Hoke Butter-Kist popcorn machine.
As my anthology of things popcorn has increased, however, so has the difficulty I've encountered in finding information, especially written material. I am particularly saddened and perplexed by those individuals who possess knowledge but seemingly would rather die with it than share it with other collectors. Years of scouring antique shows, flea markets and garage sales has uncovered bits and pieces. Enter the Internet and eBay, whose emergence and increasingly widespread use globally has greatly helped my endeavors.
With the passing of the 20th century, I came to realize that much of the joy in collecting is derived from talking with other collectors, sharing information and seeing their findings. Every collectible nowadays, or so it seems, has some sort of national organization or local club, not to mention a dozen or so books written about it. Not so with popcorn collectibles. And so it was in the spring of 2006, not long after having come to terms with the fact that my basement no longer proved adequate, that I embarked on a search for a place to display and share my burgeoning collection. Within months, the arduous task of transforming a circa 1930s commercial building – desperately in need of extensive renovation – into an 1800 square-foot museum was begun. My son, James, and I completed the memorable project in six months.
Today, The J.H. Fentress Antique Popcorn Museum houses one of the largest and most diverse collections of popcorn-related memorabilia in existence. It is a place to connect with the past and discover up-close the ingenuity of our ancestors.
The Museum currently showcases over 35 original Butter-Kist Popcorn machines and peanut roasters plus two Kist-Wich sandwich carts. Upwards of 70 striking signs and advertisements line the walls. Sure to bring a smile to the faces of museum-goers of all ages are the delightful graphics on more than 300 old popcorn boxes, 200 popcorn tins, and 100 popcorn bags (both cellophane and burlap). There's even a private reading area where visitors who are doing machine restoration or who are simply intrigued by mechanics and design can peruse original manuals and detailed drawings of machines and machine parts.
With the closing of Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company in 2009, we acquired many rare and one-of-a-kind items that depict the colorful history of this truly innovative business. Company ledgers give a detailed accounting of production and sales figures for their popcorn and peanut machines and other inventions. Letters and large glossy photographs bring you up close and personal with employees, customers and new products. Issues of The Butter-Kist Booster and its predecessor, H&H Salesology – internal publications for the Butter-Kist sales force – contain inspiring articles on the latest innovations and achievements of outstanding personnel. Among the many other items of interest: a Boxball ball and alley globe, a salesman's training manual, plus original patent certificates and franchise agreements.
The J.H. Fentress Antique Popcorn Museum is more than a hobby. Indeed, it is a labor of love, which I truly enjoy sharing with others.