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Meeting's jolly time turns into popping good history

By Renae B. Vander Schaaf
agripen@live.com

Date Modified: 07/02/2013 11:06 AM

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SIOUX CITY, IOWA — Garry Smith goes to work every day to the same location his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather did before him.

Garry and his cousin Carlton Smith are co-CEOs of JOLLY TIME Pop Corn, the business their great-grandfather C.H. Smith began in 1914.

C.H. Smith grew up on a farm in Sac County. The county earned the title "Popcorn Capital of the World'' by the early 1900s. National companies such as Cracker Jack purchased their popcorn from the firm.

Leaving the farm, C.H. Smith spent time in Texas oil fields before returning to Odebolt to be the town's pharmacist. While there, he developed and sold Corn Huskers Lotion. In 1899, he established the community's first telephone company.

The first line went from the doctor's office to C.H. Drug store. The telephone company merged with others, and when C.H. Smith was promoted to general manager, he moved his family to Sioux City. The New State Telephone Company was purchased by Bell Telephone Company in 1912.

With the money he earned from selling his stock, he purchased land north of Odebolt. A tenant raised popcorn and when C.H. Smith was unhappy with price offered by a popcorn buyer, he was challenged to get into the business.

C.H. Smith hauled harvested popcorn from his farm to Sioux City in wagons. That winter, his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Howard, hand-shelled, sorted and graded the corn. Their first customer in Council Bluffs bought 25 pounds.

Convinced popcorn would become popular if attention was paid to quality, and it was properly packaged and promoted, the Smith family formed the American Pop Corn Company. In April, 1,200 pounds were sold and the amount soared to 8,000 pounds by July, and 12,300 pounds in September.

"There were many popcorn companies at the time," Garry Smith said. "Many brands were out there, often packaged at one processing plant. But C.H. and Howard made the decision to concentrate on one brand, JOLLY TIME Pop Corn."

The name came from a meeting with an advertising agent in Chicago. When someone commented about the "jolly time" they were having, it clicked as a brand name for their corn.

Jolly Time Pop Corn is the perfect name, Garry Smith said. His great-grandfather preferred popcorn to be two words, that is how it has remained for JOLLY TIME Pop Corn.

The debate continues between white or yellow popcorn. Yellow popcorn requires a longer growing season. Smith said Highway 20, which travels through Fort Dodge, Sioux City and south through Nebraska is considered the dividing line. White popcorn is king north of that line. White popcorn sales are higher in northern states.

Customers demand consistency in popping ability, taste and texture. Growing popcorn is serious business.

"Popcorn is just one of three types of corn," Smith said. "There is sweet, field and popcorn. They are all related, just not the same. The industry is smaller, there are less hybrids to choose from."

JOLLY TIME works with seed companies to develop hybrids that meet their criteria. JOLLY TIME Pop Corn is non-GMO.

Most of the popcorn is grown in Nebraska. The crop prefers lighter, sandier soils. Some popcorn still is grown in South Dakota and Iowa. Popcorn yields are half that of field corn.

The company has changed from a grain-handling facility to a food processing plant with the introduction of microwave popcorn. Microwave popcorn now is 90 percent of JOLLY TIME's sales.

Weekly taste tests are conducted. Butter always is popular, but so is cheese and kettle corn that combines salt and sweet.

Today's price list fills four pages, Smith said. It is a far cry from November 1945 when two items were listed — a 10 ounce can of yellow popcorn and a 10 ounce can of white.

JOLLY TIME remains a family owned business.

Garry's sons, Rett and Alex, have been learning the business much as he did by sweeping floors, mowing, working in the processing plant and otherwise getting to know all facets of the business.

A new product line of Koated Kernels has been developed by the great, great-granddaughters of C.H. Smith, using recipes from their mother and new ideas.

Plans for celebrating this special 100th birthday include a birthday party for JOLLY TIME's 180 employees and their associates.