On November 16, the McWhirter collection of rare antique Cretors popcorn wagons will be on the auction block in Maryland and a family that has been selling caramel corn and caramel apples for 80 years will retire from the popcorn biz. ATZ asked Bob McWhirter, 59, if he would miss it. The answer was both yes and no.
“I can actually remember being 5 years old and working for my grandfather,” he recalled. “My job at that point in time was to open up the bags to get them ready for him to use to sell corn as customers came up. I think I earned 25 cents or 50 cents for the day. I had a ball doing it. I was allowed to sit on the stool and talk to the customers.”
The 1906 Cretors Model D “Circus” wagon, the oldest in Saturday’s sale at Mosby & Co. Auctions, is one of his grandfather Joe Kitchen’s original wagons, purchased in the 1930s. The sale has 21 lots from the McWhirter collection, including wagons, popcorn machines and parts, and framed prints.
The family business called “Doc Kitchen’s Kitchenette” was started during the Great Depression. Mr. Kitchen used to tease people that he was the only man he knew that had six kitchens in one house. After he died in 1976, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren carried on the business. “We all work full time and did this on evenings and weekends for 30 years here in northern Virginia,” said McWhirter, who brought the wagons to craft shows, car shows and county fairs. Restored in the 1980s, the 1906 wagon was in near continuous use by the family from 1933 until the mid 2000s.
C. Cretors and Co. has been in business since the 19th century when its founder invented steam powered machines that could roast quantities of peanuts as well as pop corn. Cretors wagons were considered the best of the best by concessionaires and are prized by collectors.
“As I grew older, actually as we all grew older, we were allowed to make caramel apples,” says McWhirter. His grandfather had his own recipe for caramel corn as well as for caramel apples. “We made caramel corn for years and years and years. The recipe that was handed down to me was a scoop of sugar, a can of milk, and seasoning. I had to figure it out from there.”
Why is the family selling their heirloom wagons now? “We’re getting older,” McWhirter said of himself and his elder sister and brother. “The kids are all having their own families. None of them wanted to carry on so we felt it was unfair to the wagons just to let them sit in the garage and rot. They needed to be taken care of.”
A nephew is keeping one of the wagons, though he currently has no plans to take it on the road. “Right now I think what he might do is pop some corn for the kids in the neighborhood.”
Mosby’s live auction is on November 16 in Frederick, Maryland, but the catalogue is online and you can bid now or in real time during the auction.
UPDATE December 10, 2013:
The popcorn wagons did not find buyers at the auction and are currently available for private sale. If you’re interested in getting into the popcorn biz, visit Kitchen’s Kitchenette website for Bob McWhirter’s contact info.
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