If you grew up in Milbank before 1986, you most likely visited Tommy’s Popcorn stand. You probably saw Tommy as frequently as you could scrape together enough dimes and nickels to trade for popcorn, jaw breakers, astro pops, Bazooka bubble gum, or even an occasional pack of candy cigarettes before the world got politically correct. If you didn’t know Tommy, you missed more than one kind of treat. Tommy was a gentle soul who lived to bring smiles along with a few cavities to all the kids in Milbank. His name was Otto Wellnitz, but no kid ever called him that or even knew it. Everyone just called him “Tommy” or for more formal occasions “Tommy Popcorn”.
Like all good things, though, Tommy’s run ended. Tommy died in 1997 and left this world for that big candy store in the sky. Thousands of kids will always remember him, but just as many will miss out on the fun. Or will they? Valley Queen Cheese is bringing Tommy’s back! The original stand has been restored and will serve a new generation of kids with a sweet tooth. The stand will live on as a tribute to Tommy.
Tommy and his twin brother were born in Grant County, eight miles southeast of Milbank in 1918. His twin did not survive and Tommy joined his family as the youngest of 12 children. He also had three step sisters and a step brother. From birth, Tommy was handicapped by the rare disorder infantile-onset ascending hereditary spastic paralysis. The disease prevented him from walking and a childhood injury to his elbow also restricted his hand and curtailed the use of his fingers.
He worked by making cards and selling them at Lyle’s Cafe until, in 1952, the idea of Tommy’s Popcorn was hatched- but Tommy’s debut was not in Milbank. Tommy’s brother, Paul, who farmed near Odessa, suggested the business and offered help. So, Tommy opened every Wednesday and Saturday night each summer from 1952 to 1963 on Main Street in Odessa. He spent the winters in Milbank with his sister, Esther Miottel. When Esther’s husband Walter died in 1963, Tommy and Tommy’s Popcorn moved permanently to Milbank.
The stand took up residence in the southwest corner of the Courthouse Park, only moving a bit to make room for the new library. Tommy’s regularly opened in May and stayed open through most of September, usually from the time school let out until about 9:30 at night.
Every kid knew Tommy rarely missed a day of business and only for severe thunderstorms or threat of tornado did he close. Then, you could find him hurrying home riding the small tractor, purchased for him by the Emanuel Lutheran Church Men’s Club in 1966.
Tommy loved his work and was proud to have known two generations of piggy banks, but on Saturday August 30, 1986, he sold his last Walnut Crush, Fruit Stripe and Black Jack gum, popped his last kernel of corn, closed shop, and retired. Tommy’s Popcorn stand was moved to his sister’s backyard at 901 S. Second Street and used for storage. It remained there for 30 years. Now, after three long decades, Tommy’s Popcorn is about to reawaken.
Valley Queen Cheese acquired the stand through a real estate purchase and instead of destroying it, decided to restore it. Recently, the renovations were completed and they have temporarily loaned it to Hurley Park and moved it to be near the skating rink. Its first day in operation will be today, January 2, 2016. Amy Thue, Milbank native, remembers countless trips to Tommy’s. “It was one of the boundaries on our bikes. We would collect our coins and wait for him to arrive.” She and her sister Sara Snaza, owners of Whimsy on Main, are providing the cookies for the opening at the rink this weekend.
Today, when kids step up to Tommy’s and ponder the choice between a Reese’s and a Snickers, they won’t realize how narrowly Tommy’s avoided destruction. When Valley Queen purchased several of the homes in Tommy’ s former neighborhood, Kerry Fish, an employee at Valley Queen, alerted Valley Queen CEO Mark Leddy to the existence of the popcorn stand. Leddy said, “We decided to preserve something of importance to so many in Milbank, but we are surprised at the buzz this has created.”
Leddy also said, “It was in pretty good shape for its age, but Vince Hagen and Josh Siem were put in charge of the revival.” Hagen, who didn’t grow up in Milbank, said “It was a fun project to work on. I didn’t know the history, but right away I started to hear stories of the fond memories this little building stirred up. While we were working on it, people were getting excited and that got us excited, too.”
According to Leddy, plans are also in the works for Tommy’s this summer. Stay tuned to the Valley Express for more details.
Tommy would most likely be amazed at the Hubba Bubba he is creating, but if you were a Milbank kid you are not surprised. You are thinking, “Sweet. The legend lives on.”