The Humphrey Company store in Cleveland's Public Square in the 1890s.

Up to Their Ears in Popcorn

It’s not what Betsy Humphrey dreamed she’d be doing with her life. But when she married Dudley Humphrey Jr., she inherited a 100-year popcorn history.

“They’ll probably carry me out of here in a box,” she joked inside the popcorn company she and Dudley operate near Cleveland.

Well known for the popcorn balls they make in northeast Ohio, the Humphrey Company’s legacy extends back to the 1800s. And the modest company with its handful of employees shows no signs of stopping.

Betsy stands in the popping room where a blue flame flashes inside a stainless steel oven. Almost immediately popcorn begins to spill out into a spinning cylindrical cage. In two and a half minutes, a plastic barrel is snow-capped with 10 pounds of bursting white kernels. “We can do about 8,000 large popcorn balls a day,” Betsy says of the softball size snack.

Syrup and popcorn are mixed and then cooled in a copper kettle. In a machine running along the wall, perfect balls are stamped out with metal cups, and a conveyor belt carries them through a window into the packaging area.

Meanwhile, Dudley is on the forklift loading a semitruck with popcorn balls for delivery to a local grocery chain. The company also sells directly to customers through its website, and catalog.

As workers package the product, plant manager Tom Dickerhoof works on the company’s other signature treat – Candy Kisses.

A tug and a kiss
Dickerhoof muscles a brown glob of taffy onto an old-fashioned pulling machine. It turns hand over hand, pulling the taffy until it is doughy white.

On a canvas stretcher, he forms the candy into an eight-foot long sugary snake. It slides through his hands and disappears into a fire engine red mass of cast iron. Clicking and whirring, the waist-high machine devours taffy, bite by bite. Somewhere in its belly of gears and belts, a yellow wrapper captures each piece, and they drop into a wire basket.

With more than 70 years of experience, the vintage machine has been in the business longer than anyone there today. It’s a relic from the company’s colorful history that began with Dudley’s great-grandfather and grandfather.

Dudley said the pair came to Cleveland in the early 1890s after the family’s 550-acre farm in nearby Wakeman was foreclosed upon. When they were unable to sell the patent of a popcorn popper they invented, which featured an agitator that mixed the kernels and oil, they went into the popcorn business themselves.

“They started…with a couple of horse-drawn carts,” Dudley said. A success from the start, the father and son team soon set up shop in the corner of May’s Drug Store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Then followed a move that came to define the Humphrey Company.

“In 1895 Euclid Beach (Park) opened,” Dudley said, “My great-grandfather got the popcorn concession there.”

But the amusement park struggled. According to an early Humphrey Company publication, the park tried to be everything to everyone with “beer, freaks, fakes, chance games, questionable shows and palmists.” So in 1901, the Humphreys bought the park, intent on cleaning up its image.

Under the new ownership, the park was a success, some say the best of its day, and among the park’s top attractions were Humphrey popcorn balls and Candy Kisses.

While the park eventually closed in 1969, a group called Euclid Beach Park Now has formed to preserve its memory. Members reminisce on the group’s Web site message board.

“Those of us who used to cook the syrup for the popcorn balls and blended the ingredients for the Humphrey Kisses used to guard those recipes as if they were top secrets from the Pentagon,” wrote a man who said he worked at the park.

After the close of Euclid Beach Park, the Humphreys refocused on popcorn. The family had been growing its own supply of popcorn on its Wakeman farm, which they had repurchased in the 1920s.

“Apparently it was not easy to get good popcorn back then, so we grew our own,” Dudley said.

Reviving the farm
It’s hard to miss the Humphrey Farm as you drive down Wakeman Towline Road in Huron County. White shingles on the green barn roof spell out the family name in 15-foot high letters. Pete Hazel, the farm’s current operator and a Farm Bureau member, said a local airport uses it as a navigation point.

It was Hazel’s wife whose grandfather was the first to grow Humphrey popcorn in 1927. “When he first came here, he only farmed 40 acres,” Hazel said. “Everything was grown up in brush. The farm had been let go.”

Today the farm has expanded to more than 1,000 acres and includes field corn (corn used primarily for livestock and in foods such as cereal and soda), plus a few cattle and food grade soybeans, which Hazel sells to customers in Japan. Up to 100 acres of popcorn will provide a year’s supply to the Humphrey Company. Hazel said for the best quality, the popcorn is picked and dried on the ear. “When you pick it, you don’t scratch the seed coat,” he said. Scratched popcorn, apparently, is a consumer nemesis – the scratch will let the moisture out gradually when it is heated, preventing the kernel from popping.

Once dried, the popcorn must sit for an additional two to three months to provide the best pop. It is then shelled, cleaned, polished and shipped to Humphrey Company throughout the year.

“Everybody likes it when we run popping tests around here,” Hazel said. “We usually end up with trash bags full of popcorn.”

And that includes the cattle. The herd gets to feed on popcorn scraps. “I can hear the cattle in here,” Hazel said inside the farm office. “It sounds like they’re munching on rocks.”

The variety of corn is as important as the quality. Hazel explained that there are two ways in which corn pops – the mushroom and the butterfly. “The mushroom style doesn’t work for popcorn balls,” he said.

The huge, ballooning pop of the mushroom pop, while in demand by consumers, is so big that it leaves divots on the surface of popcorn balls. The butterfly pop, which opens like a book, provides a smooth surface.

Back at the Humphrey Company, workers inspect the surface of each ball that comes off the line. “We don’t like to send out spaceships and we don’t like sending Pac Men,” Betsy said of potentially odd-shaped popcorn treats. “They’ve got to be balls.”

Contacting the Humphrey Company

20810 Miles Pkwy.
Warrensville Heights, Ohio 44128
Phone: 216-662-6629
Toll Free: 800-486-3739

Attention teachers and parents: Find out how this story connects to Ohio’s Academic Content standards for social studies.