Local history enthusiast Larry Vodenik left no one in doubt Sunday about the depth of his devotion to Perry history when he left a sick bed in order to deliver the second of his summer lectures on nostalgic downtown Perry.
Vodenik’s efforts were rewarded with a larger crowd than attended his June lecture. About 20 came to the Carnegie Library Museum’s cool downstairs courtroom to hear the afternoon lecture, which this month focused on Celeste Council and the story of Perry’s many popcorn stands.
Still a relatively young man, Vodenik’s personal memories do not stretch as far back as do those of many of his listeners, but his trove of historical images of Perry, particularly its old buildings, and the research he has done in local history make him a wealth of information.
Celeste Council was the last in a long line of popcorn vendors in Perry, and she occupied by turns the northeast and southeast corners of the intersection of Willis Avenue and Second Street for 50 years, from 1919 to 1969.
She died in 1969 at age 86, working to the very last and selling popcorn to the grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren of her former customers. Her death was in April, and the Perry Centennial Celebration was scheduled for July, an event she was looking forward to with relish, according to Vodenik and his audience.
John Palmer of Perry, a member of the Perry Historic Preservation Commission, recalled delivering groceries from United Market to Mrs. Council’s apartment above Rhoner’s Appliance Store at Willis Avenue and Railroad Street.
“She always kept two chairs out front so you could sit and visit,” Palmer recalled. Other attendees shared stories of the long lines at her popcorn stand on Saturday nights and of trying to jump out and buy a bag before the light changed to green.
Born Celeste White, a scion of one of Perry’s settler families, she married Vernon Council in 1923. The couple was childless and Council, a Perry Volunteer Fire Department member, died in the Woolworth’s fire in 1945. The city of Perry leased the grounds of its various popcorn stands to tenants, but they never again charged Mrs. Council rent after the death of her husband, Vodenik said.
Popcorn stands were once a regular feature of Perry’s downtown commerce, which supported as many as four popcorn stands at one time. In other periods, fewer operated, but they plied a steady trade in the days before movie houses began to sell their own snacks.
The small-scale vending outfits also worked like incubators for local business.
“The first guy who opened a popcorn stand in downtown Perry went on to open a storefront business,” Vodenik said. A similar process is seen in Perry today when taco-truck vendors move into commercial spaces along Second Street.
John Moe, editor of the Perry Daily Chief at the time of “the popcorn lady’s” death and with Perry’s first centennial at hand, wrote of Mrs. Council, “We feel confident that, when the researchers for that (2069 Perry) centennial dig through the newspaper accounts of our generation, one of the ‘Little People’ of Perry will stand out and will again receive proper recognition.”
Video courtesy PEGASUS TV12 volunteer Doug Wood