Each laid claim to a crucial city intersection or location
|Roswell “Kernel” Moseley feeds pigeons outside the Sears & Roebuck Farm Store in 1948. Popcorn-vendor extraordinaire, Moseley was a human landmark on the southeast corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street for three decades.|
Bellingham’s curbside popcorn vendors were a charming downtown tradition for half a century. Though a humble profession, the tycoons of corn had a colorful and often contentious history.
The earliest purveyors of the popped treat were fleeting, operating small carts, like Emeros Wisner on a corner of Cornwall and Holly in 1905. The next year Sam Adams took Wisner’s place, outside the Beck Hotel, only to disappear just as quickly. In 1914, Peter Baldakos sold popcorn from a cart in the alley behind 1321 Railroad Ave.!
Bellingham’s first popcorn vendor with staying power was Benjamin Goodrich. In 1907, Ben quit his steady job as janitor at the Silver Beach School to take a chance with a “C. Cretors & Co.” popcorn wagon. The cart had spoke-wheels and was maneuvered with a handled pole on the front. Goodrich set up next to the Clover Block, on the southwest corner of Holly and Commercial, outside the Bellingham National Bank.
|Ben Goodrich’s popcorn wagon outside the Clover Block, c. 1909.|
By 1909, Ben had earned the grandiose title of “popcorn manufacturer” in Polk’s Bellingham city directory. Business looked so promising that Bert Taylor brazenly started a rival cart directly across Holly from Goodrich’s. Apparently the intersection wasn’t big enough for two popcorn vendors as Taylor didn’t last through the rainy season.
Goodrich faced a new challenger in 1913 when Joseph A. Cole suddenly appeared downtown with a big red wagon. Cole took Taylor’s vacated corner on Commercial Street beside the Red Front Building. No ordinary popcorn wagon, Cole’s was an intimidating Cretors & Co. model-C rig, which arrived drawn by a horse!
Cole ran an expensive full-page ad in the Polk directory claiming his “goods are the BEST the market affords and are prepared in a sanitary manner by the latest improved machinery.” He offered hot-buttered popcorn made “fresh each hour of the day” for 5 cents a bag and was making 70 cents on the dollar in profit. Cole also offered candy and fresh roasted peanuts. Goodrich returned to a janitorial job in 1914.
Cole’s biggest day came on Aug. 20, 1915, when “the largest gathering of Elks in the history of the state” gathered in Bellingham for a convention. That afternoon 1,115 members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks marched through downtown. It was a parade that didn’t want to end, meandering for more than two hours as it discovered yet another avenue, retraced its path and went the opposite way on the same streets! A photograph from the occasion shows Cole’s wagon, only its roof showing, immersed in the huge crowd of spectators.
|Joseph Cole’s “big red wagon” parked on Commercial Street next to the Red Front Building in 1913.|
Cole did do so well selling popcorn that, by 1917, he moved out of town.
In September 1922, the popcorn wagon of Roswell C. Moseley made its Bellingham debut only to get a cold reception. By the 1920s downtown streets had considerably more automobile traffic and parking demands, far more than just a decade earlier, leaving precious little room for curbside vending. When Moseley set up at the high-volume corner of Cornwall and Holly, a patrolman told him he would have to move. He was warned by the police, repeatedly.
Moseley went to Mayor E. T. Mathes and protested that “I am trying to conduct a legitimate business and to do so in a spirit of cooperation with officials.” After considerable discussion by City Council, Moseley relocated to Magnolia and Cornwall near the Bellingham Public Market. The location still wasn’t ideal and some councilmen expressed their impatience for the day Moseley’s business license expired.
About the same time, Upton C. Umphenour, recently from Oklahoma, set up a popcorn wagon on the southwest corner of Railroad and Holly. There wasn’t a better spot in the city. Railroad Ave. was an extra-wide thoroughfare with plenty of room for a popcorn cart and the intersection had a bounty of foot traffic.
Umphenour had avoided Moseley’s hassles over location, but on May 11, 1924, Upton’s wagon exploded adjacent the Mason Building. The blast threw pedestrians to the sidewalk, shattered the Northwestern National Bank’s plate glass windows and showered “broken machinery for a distance of two hundred feet.” The cart was completely destroyed.
Upton, his wife Grace, and their 3-year-old daughter, Frances Ruth, had been standing next to the wagon when it blew up and, painfully burned, were rushed to St. Luke’s in the city ambulance. The Umphenours spent a week in the hospital. Cause of the accident was determined to be a faulty pressure gauge, which failed to alert Upton that excessive steam had accumulated in the cart’s boiler.
With the prime intersection suddenly vacant, Moseley moved his wagon to Railroad and Holly. He would maintain a popcorn wagon there for the next 30 years and to this day is still fondly remembered as “Kernel Moseley.”
By 1927, an undeterred Umphenour was back with a new popcorn and peanut cart. With his former corner occupied by the Kernel, Upton parked on Commercial Street outside Louis Franks’ confectionery in the Luther Building. Franks, who also sold popcorn and peanuts, complained to his landlord, Thomas Luther, that Umphenour was stealing business. Mr. Luther took the issue to police Chief Nick Rust, who personally told Umphenour to move his cart. Upton appealed to the City Council, which granted him permission to stay.
Franks and Luther filed a lawsuit in Whatcom County Superior Court in March 1928 with the plaintiffs asking “the court to decree Umphenour’s wagon a ‘public nuisance’ in its present location.” Further, Franks was suing for damages, claiming Umphenour’s popcorn peddling had cost him sales “in excess of $100 since the first of the year.” No small peanuts.
Umphenour relented and moved the wagon to 1414 Commercial St., in front of the Bellingham Public Library. It turned out to be an excellent location, the cart serving as a base camp at the foot of the 57 steps that led up to the summit of “Mt. Carnegie.” Library patrons, as well as audiences from the Mt. Baker Theatre across the street, provided Upton with a consistent clientele.
Meanwhile, business boomed for Kernel Moseley. His popcorn, peanut and candy empire eventually expanded to include wagons in nine cities, which he leased to purveyors. He continued to tend his own cart on Railroad Avenue most of the week, but got days off by hiring help. The Kernel liked to tell the story of the time he sent in a check for a subscription to Fortune magazine, only to be informed by the editors that he was entitled to a refund “because of your military status.” As a hobby, he added to his collection of presidential campaign buttons and election memorabilia, which eventually grew to more than 3,000 items.
Moseley and Umphenour each kept their wagons lucrative through the Great Depression. A bag of popcorn was an inexpensive lunch for many. It made the news when Umphenour’s cart below the library was broken into late one Saturday night in July 1934 and robbed of “about $4 worth of candy and chewing gum.” By the late 1930s, Upton’s daughter Frances, who had been injured years earlier when the family cart exploded, tended the Umphenour wagon.
Just after World War II, Lewis Teas started a popcorn cart outside Art Howard’s Stop & Shop at Magnolia and Railroad. Though retired and in his seventies, Teas enjoyed keeping busy. At the same time, Kernel Moseley bought out the Umphenour cart and renamed it “Moseley’s Pop Corn Wagon No. 2.” The Kernel employed students from Western Washington College of Education to run the second stand.
When a new downtown library on Central Avenue replaced the Carnegie Library in 1951, Moseley closed out his “No. 2” cart. Kernel Moseley had been selling popcorn on Railroad Avenue for 30 years, through every season and in all weather, when he passed away on Nov. 4, 1952. renamed it “Moseley’s Pop Corn Wagon No. 2.” The Kernel employed students from Western Washington College of Education to run the second stand.
|The Umphenour cart sat below Bellingham’s downtown Carnegie Library at Champion and Commercial streets.|