Finding Minnesota: Granite Falls Popcorn Stand

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Every small town has something that makes it unique. And a western Minnesota town is no different.

For nearly a century, Granite Falls has had a very savory tradition. One that began during the Prohibition Era. In this week’s Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen shows us what makes Granite Falls pop.

Every night from May Day to Labor Day, a tiny building at the corner of Prentice Street and 7th Avenue starts popping corn just before 7 a.m.

Those first few pops are like the pied piper for popcorn lovers.

“It almost, in the summer months, becomes the focal point of night life in downtown Granite Falls,” said Mayor Dave Smiglewski.

For 98 years, this has been a tradition not just for Granite Falls, but for Western Minnesota and beyond. It’s called the Granite Falls Kiwanis Popcorn Stand.

“I always love asking people, ‘where are you from?’ ‘We are from Sioux Falls but we stop here on our way to our lake in Alexandria. We swing by just to get popcorn.’ I say ‘really?!’” Les Bergquist said.

Bergquist is the co-organizer, and since his Kiwanis club took over the stand 15 years ago, he’s basically had to get a Ph. D in popcorn.

“It goes back to August 1, 1919,” said Bergquist.

That’s when brothers Julius and Fred Ernston decided they could make an annual town celebration, better, by opening a popcorn stand.

“Finally, people in town said, we want popcorn more than just at the celebration,” Bergquist said.

A very old and detailed ledger shows how the stand got its start. That same year, Granite Falls congressman Andrew Volstead co-authored legislation to become one of the founding fathers of prohibition. So it’s only fitting that 1919 Root Beer is also sold here.

“It is so enjoyable. No doubt about it. We have a lot of work involved in it,” Bergquist said.

The stand has changed hands several times over the years. Now, 30 Kiwanis volunteers take turns each night. And all of them know the secret to keeping customers, coming back.

“The popcorn is out of this world because it’s made with real dairy butter,” Bergquist said.

Coconut oil is another reason grandparents who went here as children, now bring their grandkids. And people who move away — always return.

“It’s a nice treat to come back and go to the popcorn stand. You definitely appreciate it being in your small town,” said sisters Emily and Jamie Baker.

During it’s nearly 100 years, the stand has even played matchmaker a time or two. Jordan Trotter’s grandparents met in this very spot 50 years ago.

“I wouldn’t be here otherwise. And the popcorn is good too,” Trotter said.

Kiwanis donates all the proceeds to youth activity and reading programs, a total of $21,000 just last year. And it’s not just kids that benefit. What little popcorn is left over each night goes to the birds.

“We have the fattest sparrows and ducks in the whole state of Minnesota here because we dump it out in the street and all kinds of birds love it,” Bergquist said.

It’s small town history as told with dairy butter and a touch of salt. A perfect recipe for bringing a community together.

“Because it’s from Granite Falls and it’s homemade and it’s really good,” said 11-year-old Owen Cherveny.

More from John Lauritsen
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