Hoosier History Live! features host Nelson Price, Saturdays noon to 1 p.m. on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis.

Saturdays, noon to 1 p.m. ET on WICR 88.7 FM.
And always online at hoosierhistorylive.org!

July 6 show

Orville Redenbacher and popcorn heritage in Indiana

Chew on this: Not only is "Year of Popcorn" the theme at next month's Indiana State Fair, but the farmboy-turned-entrepreneur who became internationally known as "the Popcorn King" was a Hoosier.

Orville Redenbacher was born in Brazil, Ind., in 1907 and became a famous popcorn entrepreneur with his namesake brand.Grandfatherly, bow-tied Orville Redenbacher (1907-95), who became a multimedia advertising icon, is far from Indiana's only link to the perennially, uh, pop-ular product that long ago became a household staple.

A farm agent who grew up near Brazil, Ind., Redenbacher studied at Purdue University and experimented for more 40 years with 3,000 hybrids of popcorn. He's credited with making the first significant changes in the treat since Native Americans introduced it to white settlers in the 1600s.

His adopted hometown of Valparaiso, where Redenbacher lived for many years, continues to host an annual Popcorn Festival in his honor. The event, which includes a popcorn parade, typically is attended by 75,000 people.

Another Hoosier town - Van Buren in Grant County - also hosts an annual Popcorn Festival that features a parade.  Because so much popcorn is produced from the farms surrounding Van Buren (pop.: 864 in the 2010 U.S. Census), the town bills itself as "the popcorn capital of the world." According to the State Fair, Indiana is one of the country's top popcorn-producing states.

So not only will we explore the colorful life of Orville Redenbacher, the "king of kernels," Nelson and his guests also will delve into the product's historic importance to the Hoosier state's economy and heritage.

John Norberg.Noblesville-based, family-owned Weaver Popcorn Company makes and distributes popcorn internationally (since 2010, Weaver Popcorn has even been sold at movie theaters in China) and is a leading maker of microwave popcorn.

To digest all of this popcorn talk, Nelson will be joined by Purdue staff writer and historian John Norberg, who interviewed Redenbacher and also was a colleague of the late Robert Topping, author of the definitive biography Just Call Me Orville (Purdue University Press, 2011).

Andy Klotz.Nelson's guests also will include Andy Klotz, public relations director of the State Fair, who will share details about the ways the product will be showcased next month. Andy also will share insights about Weaver Popcorn, which was founded in the 1920s by Rev. Ira Weaver, another beloved Hoosier entrepreneur.

Fun fact: When Nelson was researching Orville Redenbacher's life for his book Indiana Legends, he discovered the popcorn king always preferred his "salted, no butter."

At Brazil High School, Redenbacher captured state championships in 4-H club contests. He paid for his tuition at Purdue (which, as he put it, soon was "on the cutting edge of popcorn research") by scrubbing hog houses and tending chickens. Redenbacher became an agricultural agent in Vigo County, where he apparently was the first county agent in Indiana to broadcast live on radio from fields.

Orville Redenbacher as a member of the Purdue University Band with a helicon horn, 1924-25. Image courtesy Purdue University Libraries Archives.By the time Redenbacher died at age 88, he was a national celebrity, thanks to the use of his name and image on his product's label and in countless magazine ads and TV commercials. Even today, nearly 20 years after the death of Redenbacher (who is often described as popcorn's version of Col. Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame), ads and commercials still feature him, often accompanied by his grandson.

According to Just Call Me Orville, Redenbacher was named in honor of Orville Wright of the famous Wright Brothers aviators. (Orville Wright's brother Wilbur was born in far-eastern Indiana.)

At age 12, Orville Redenbacher began raising popcorn and selling it in 50-pound sacks to stores in Brazil and Terre Haute. In addition to studying agriculture as a Purdue student, he played the sousaphone in Purdue's renowned All-American Marching Band.

The decades he devoted to experimenting with hybrids are credited with producing a variety that popped significantly larger, lighter and fluffier. It became a marketing sensation as Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn and eventually was sold to California-based Hunt Wesson Foods, which continued to use Redenbacher as the brand's spokesman. (It eventually was swallowed up by ConAgra, the giant food conglomerate based in Omaha.)

At the State Fair, which will run from Aug. 2-18, the world's largest popcorn ball - weighing 5,200 pounds - will be on display. Popcorn festival float in Valparaiso popcorn parade.According to a recent article in the Indianapolis Star, Sac City, Iowa currently holds title for the world's largest popcorn ball with its 5,000-pound ball created by town residents in 2009.

Other aspects of the "Year of Popcorn" celebration at the fair will include a twist on a traditional corn maze: a popcorn maze that fair-goers can maneuver through.

Final fun fact: According to Just Call Me Orville, the "Popcorn King," who became a hit on the speaking circuit, occasionally would introduce his talk by saying, "My topic tonight is sex."

After his audience reacted with astonishment, he would share insights about "the sex life of a popcorn plant and the breeding methods required to obtain hybrids."

Learn more:

Roadtrip: Oldenburg, the village of spires

Most of the spired buildings in Oldenburg, Ind., are part of the complex of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis. Image courtesy Archdiocese of Indianapolis.Guest Roadtripper this week is William Selm, architectural historian, adjunct faculty member at IUPUI and expert on German heritage in Indiana. He suggests we visit another of his favorite German-settled small towns in Indiana, Oldenburg, which is right off I-74 going southeast Indianapolis in Franklin County.

William tells us that "Oldenburg is one of many towns and villages across Indiana, especially Southern Indiana, founded by and for German immigrants before the Civil War. What makes Oldenburg stand out is its townscape of spired buildings, most of which are part of the complex of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis."

Oldenburg was founded in 1837 by two immigrants from the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg at the request of the Catholic priest, Fr. Joseph Ferneding, also an Oldenburger. A later priest, Fr. Franz Josef Rudolf from Alsace, had the vision of spires as he built the c. 1848 onion-domed stone church, the current brick 1860s parish church, and the first convent buildings.

This energetic priest also co-founded the convent and invited Beatus Gehring to establish his brick yard south of the village. He is honored with a crypt tomb in the parish church. Oldenburg's annual Freudenfest is this July 19-20.

History Mystery

The "mystery restaurant" in West Lafayette, c. 1940.Not far from the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette where Orville Redenbacher majored in agricultural studies is a landmark in Indiana food history.

Billing itself as the state's oldest drive-in, the restaurant has a memorable name. Known for burgers, shakes and root beer, it serves menu items such as Boilermaker burgers and peanut butter burgers. The restaurant opened in 1929, one year after young Orville Redenbacher graduated from Purdue.

Question: Name the landmark restaurant in West Lafayette.

To win the prize, you must call in with the correct answer during the live show and be willing to be placed on the air. Please do not call if you have won a prize from any WICR show during the last two months. The call-in number is (317) 788-3314, and please do not call until you hear Nelson pose the question on the air.

The prize is a  pair of tickets to the Children's Museum, courtesy of Visit Indy, and tickets to the Indiana State Fair, courtesy of the Indiana State Fair.

Your Hoosier History Live! team,

Nelson Price, host and creative director
Molly Head, producer, (317) 927-9101
Richard Sullivan, webmaster and tech director

Pam Fraizer, graphic designer
Garry Chilluffo, creative consultant
Michele Goodrich, Jed Duvall, grant consultants
Joan Hostetler, photo historian
Dana Waddell, volunteer-at-large


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July 13 show

Swedish and Norwegian immigration

Much turf remains to be explored in our rotating shows about ethnic immigration to the Hoosier state, even though we already have explored German, Irish, Scottish, Cuban, Italian, Greek, Colombian, Brazilian and even Sikh heritage in Indiana.

Now the turf will involve scenic homelands with fjords, the midnight sun, seafood and ship-builders.

Show guest Jim Nelson in Oslo, Norway, in 2011, in front of the Norwegian parliament building.That's because Nelson and his guests will explore Swedish and Norwegian immigration to Indiana, a topic that involves a legendary football coach at the University of Notre Dame, an organ factory in Chesterton, heritage groups scattered across the state and the Studebaker Brothers in South Bend, even though the wagon- and car-making brothers were of German ancestry themselves.

Our show will be timely because the Indianapolis-area lodge of Vasa Order of America, which was founded to assist Swedish immigrants, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Named in honor of the first king of modern Sweden, King Gustav Vasa, Vasa has broadened its mission to welcome anyone interested in Nordic culture, including Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Finnish heritage.

Full disclosure: Our host Nelson is particularly passionate about this topic because his ancestry is Norwegian. His maternal great-grandparents emigrated on ocean liners, separately, from Trondheim (Norway's third-largest city) and Bergen, a coastal town. Nelson's parents are members of the Circle City Lodge of Sons of Norway, a heritage group that also has lodges in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Chesterton.

Trade card for Hillstrom Organ Manufacturing of Chesterton, Ind., c. 1900. Owner Charles O. Hillstrom was Swedish, as were most workers.Nelson will be joined in studio by three guests, one of whom also is a Sons of Norway member. Jim Nelson, a music teacher in Greenwood, is the descendant of Norwegian immigrants, grew up in Chesterton, lived in Norway for more than 18 years and has taught Scandinavian studies at colleges in Minnesota, Canada and Norway.

To share insights about our state's Swedish heritage, Nelson will welcome an old friend and colleague, Vasa member Jim Lindgren, a Fishers resident whose ancestry is 100 percent Swedish. Now an editor for Strategic Marketing and Research Inc. in Carmel, Jim Lindgren is a former colleague of Nelson from their years at the Indianapolis Star, where Jim was known for propping up a Swedish flag on his desk.

Nelson and the two Jims also will be joined by John Bevelhimer of Indianapolis, a retired IT specialist and past chairman of the local Vasa (Lodge Svea No. 253) who extensively researched its history for the recent centennial.

According to Peopling Indiana (Indiana Historical Society Press, 1996), Swedes and Norwegians who eventually came to Indiana tended to settle first in Chicago, then filter into the Hoosier state as a result of a second move. (The grandparents of both Nelson and Jim Lindgren lived in the Chicago area. In fact, Jim's great-grandfather, Nels Lindgren, owned a Swedish tavern in Chicago.)

Scandinavian immigrants typically arrived in Indiana decades later than their German and Irish counterparts, often lured by whatever farmland remained unclaimed during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1880s, an organ factory in Chesterton became the town's main industry and employed many Swedes and Norwegians, according to Peopling Indiana.

Elsewhere in northern Indiana, a section of Michigan City became known as "Swedeville," drawing Scandinavians seeking jobs in shipping and lumber.

And Studebaker Brothers actively recruited Swedish workers during the factory's heyday. Several of the mystery novels of contemporary author Jeanne Dams of South Bend focus on a resourceful Swedish immigrant working as a maid in one of the historic Studebaker mansions during the late 1800s.

South Bend also became the adopted hometown of an icon in college football history. Knute Rockne, the famous Notre Dame coach who used the "win one for the Gipper" story as a motivational technique, was born in the Norwegian village of Voss. The South Bend Chocolate Company continues to market Knute Rockne lines of chocolates in tribute to "The Rock," who is credited with revolutionizing college football before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1931.

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