By David Nilsen
For 46 years Ida Thomas provided Greenville and Darke County with the best popcorn ever popped in these parts. She and her husband, Frank “Shorty” Thomas, started their legendary popcorn stand in 1891, and Ida operated it after Frank’s death in 1918 till her own in 1937. In the words of the late Greenville historian Bill Booker, himself a local legend, “You just had to have it.”
Ida May McNutt was born on May 3, 1867, in Missouri. It’s unclear when or why she moved to Darke County, but by the age of twenty, she was living here. She married Frank Thomas in 1887 (he was thirteen years her senior) and just 4 years later the pair began selling popcorn in downtown Greenville. They sold out of a wagon initially, but eventually Frank cobbled together a semi-permanent stand, complete with a heater and proper serving windows, and their popcorn business became an institution. They operated their stand in front of Second National Bank for several years, but eventually moved to the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, on the corner of West Fourth Street and Broadway.
Ida and Frank sold their popcorn for 5¢ a bag, though they did eventually begin offering larger 10¢ bags. Their fresh, hot popcorn was covered with pure creamery butter, and the paper bags it was served in would be soaked through before long. Everyone loved it. In the days before everyone had an automobile and could travel easily, trips into town for rural residents were often only weekly affairs. No trip to downtown, where nearly all of the town’s businesses were located until development began at the north end of Greenville later in the 20th century, was complete without a bag or two of Ida and Frank’s popcorn. People of every age, profession, and class loved it and, just as importantly, could afford it. Rural residents looked forward to it all week, and on Friday or Saturday nights the steps and low wall in front of the courthouse would be lined with families, couples, and children sitting and nibbling on this wonderful treat, and wagons and eventually autos would be parked on the street.
Despite the happiness they brought to so many downtown revelers, Ida and Frank didn’t live easy lives. Both dealt with physical disabilities. No details are available as to what these might have been, though the only available photograph of Frank shows him with a cane, and one does cringe to think of how his ubiquitous nickname of “Shorty” might have originated. We can only hope it was a moniker he appreciated and approved. Despite their disabilities, Ida and Frank daily walked from their home at 213 Morrow Street (still standing) to their business downtown, carrying or pulling whatever supplies they needed for the day. They made the trek regardless of the weather unless it was so severe their customers were unlikely to be out and about. A small fire broke out in the stand in early 1933, and September of that year, another blaze erupted in Ida’s home kitchen (Frank had died years before), burning her hair and forcing her to move in with friends for a short time.
In 1907, Ida and Frank took in a young girl from the Darke County Children’s Home and adopted her. Nora Odine Wion was born on February 10, 1895 (one source says January 31), and moved to the children’s home after her mother and grandmother died and her father abandoned her and her siblings. On December 16, 1911, she had a son, Eugene, with her husband, Grover Cleveland Daugherty. Curiously, Eugene was eventually adopted as well by Ida and Frank, though no explanation is available for this unusual arrangement. Nora passed away in 1959, and Eugene in 1980.
Ida and Frank ran their popcorn stand together (Frank also ran a shoeshine stand) until his death on September 25, 1918, after a stroke. For the next 19 years, Ida operated the popcorn stand by herself. She became known as the Popcorn Lady. The city council passed a ban on sidewalk businesses (the sources I found differ on whether this occurred in 1915 or the early 1930s; it is possible these were separate issues), but they made an explicit exception for Greenville’s popcorn queen after public outcry arose at the thought of Ida being put out of business–and the thought of no more delicious popcorn. After she died at her home on November 27, 1937, the council released an edict officially closing down her exception clause.
For nearly half a century, Ida Thomas sold popcorn on Broadway. Her ramshackle shed ran for longer than most brick-and-mortar businesses can dream of, and she only sold one thing for all those years. Only one photograph survives of Ida, and only two of the popcorn stand (that we know of). There is another photo of the courthouse, with citizens sitting on the walls and talking in groups, but the corner where the stand would have sat is tantalizingly out of the frame and there’s no way to know if these individuals were Ida’s latest customers or not. Beyond these few images, we just have the memories of our oldest residents and stories passed down to remember this little sidewalk business by. The popcorn stand itself is long gone, and no one knows what happened to it after Ida’s death.
What must it have been like as a child early in the twentieth century to ride downtown in a buggy on a weekend night, a nickel burning a hole in your pocket, and to be handed that bag of goodness you’d waited for all week? What was it like to get that first smell of popping corn and warm butter as you walked down the street? We’ll never know. We can only imagine what our downtown was like when 5¢ got you a fresh treat from Greenville’s Popcorn Lady.
Bill Booker’s writings, both in his book Historic Downtown Greenville and in a couple articles he wrote for the Early Bird newspaper in 2000 and 2001, provided much of the information for this article. Obituaries in the Advocate newspaper after the deaths of Ida and Frank, as well as an article in the same paper following Ida’s house fire in 1933, were also helpful, as were records looked up through Ancestry.com. I would like to thank Allen Hauberg for sending me the 1903 photo of the Popcorn Stand when it stood in front of Second National Bank.
Ida and Frank Thomas are buried in Greenville Union Cemetery.