The Popcorn King of Guthrie County

It all started the dry spring of 1907. A strong wind blew all day May 12 and most of the night, filling the air with dust. The next day, when Sherd Goff–then living in Audubon County, Iowa–checked his Melville Township fields, he found most of the seed was laid bare and the rest blown away.

Sherd must have wondered how he could be so unlucky once again. When he and Laura married in 1890, he had big dreams, some including leaving Guthrie County, where Laura grew up, and moving out west. Laura said she would go along with his plans as long as they stayed within the U.S., and close to a school for their children.

He may have promised her a big house with lovely Victorian furnishings when they first moved their little family to northeast Nebraska, where lengthy newspaper ads promised a wonderful new life. It wasn’t long before a drought caused them to “go bust” and return to Iowa.

Several Guthrie County neighbors, excited about cheap land in northwest Minnesota, talked Sherd into going with them. A couple of years later, most ended up back in Iowa, including Sherd and Laura and their ten children.

And now just two years later a gale had ruined this year’s corn crop.

He decided to reseed using popcorn, since it has a shorter growing season. A popcorn company furnished the seed, which Sherd and his sons Merl and Wayne (ages 15 and 14) planted with horses.

Merl and Wayne were kept home from school during seeding and harvest times. Seven Goff children were among the twenty students from just seven families at Melville #2 school. Leora, the oldest at 16, graduated 8th Grade that spring.

Popcorn is much shorter than field corn. When it was time to harvest it, the Goff children padded their knees to gather any corn on the ground. Sherd really worked his kids, but the seed they planted that year yielded a huge crop. Sherd promised the older ones cash and educations for the younger ones–if they would stick with it to get the huge popcorn crop out. They harvested enough to fill several train cars with ears of popcorn.

The crop did so well that every spring Sherd took the train to Chicago or Odebolt to contract with a popcorn company. Three years later, on a postcard to her grandfather, dated June 5, 1910, Leora wrote, “Pa went to Chicago Tues. eve. and got pop corn. He is planting it today, is going to plant about 75 acres.”

Decades earlier, a German immigrant went into business with an older man whose popcorn and confectionery business had been destroyed by the great Chicago fire in 1871. They started with a molasses kettle and a hand popper. He bought out the older man and sent for his brother. F. W. Rueckheim and Brothers was born.

In 1922, the name was changed to “The Cracker Jack Co.” for their most popular product. When Cracker Jack wanted a constant supply of uniformly high grade popcorn, Odebolt, Iowa became known the “World’s Popcorn Center.”

So Goff’s popcorn likely went into the production of Cracker Jack.

He made enough money mainly growing popcorn to buy a farm in Guthrie County, northeast of Wichita, where they moved the spring of 1911. There M.S. “Sherd” Goff was considered the “popcorn king” of Guthrie County.

It even made The Guthrie Times: “M.S. Goff hauled the last of his popcorn and carred it for the Kansas City market this week.” (Jan. 24, 1912)

M.S. Goff is building a double corncrib.” (Oct. 10, 1912)

crib (2)

M.S. Goff carred a load of popcorn at Guthrie. Did not learn what market he shipped to.” (Sept. 18, 1913)

The next February, oldest daughter Leora married Clabe Wilson. A month later Sherd Goff bought his first auto, a second-hand Buick so he could take his wife Laura to visit the newlyweds. Sherd also brought home a new ice-box, and that July traded the Buick on a new Cadillac. He was evidently expecting another large crop of popcorn as that fall he had the east addition of this house removed with plans to build “higher and wider.”

The older Goff sons bought land in Baker Township to grow popcorn. Two of them bought Kissel cars and got to drive them about a year before they were drafted to serve in the Great War. Clabe and Leora (their sister, who had two small sons by then) moved to Baker Township farm to care for the crop, where another baby was born.

When popcorn was ready to harvest, which is earlier than field corn,” Leora wrote, “we had corn picking men to ‘board and sleep.’ [Sister] Ruby came to help me. We had two beds in the front room and about 6 men. . . .”

From France after the fighting was over, Leora’s brothers wrote the fall of 1918, “Expect you will be cooking for corn shuckers.” “Suppose you’re ready to start picking popcorn.” “Suppose popcorn is the order of the day.” “You probably have a bunch of corn piled up.”

Roll Daws has been up to Wichita husking popcorn for Sherd Goff. . .” stated the November 28 issue of The Guthrie Times. “Mr. Goff raised about 2300 bushes this year. The yield was cut short by the hot dry season. About 23 bushes per acre was the average yield. We are told that Sherd has an offer of seven cents per pound for his corn in the year, 70 pounds per bushes, but will old for eight cents. This would make $5.60 the bushel, or 128.80 per acre. As before stated this has been a lean year. Mr. Goff has raised as much as 50 bushels per acre. Still there are people who say that Iowa corn land is not worth the present selling price. The war is now over and $300 land will be common.”

MS

Sherd sold his Wichita farm the spring of 1919 and bought his wife a furnished Victorian house in the town of Guthrie Center.

Goff loved fairs and circuses and reunions. He bought a stainless steel popcorn machine so he and his sons could sell sacks of popcorn at Guthrie Center events. It had a round pot and a crank handle, and you could see through it, according to Leora.

Sherd had overextended credit to buy farm land, so ended up “going bust” again during the slump in farm prices after the war. His younger children did get to go to high school, but the older ones never did get their “cash.”

Goffs eventually moved to Dexter to be near Leora’s family. Leora’s older sons helped Sherd sell popcorn when he took his machine to parades and picnics.

But all came to a memorable end one year at a Penn Center picnic south of Dexter when the Popcorn King’s popcorn machine caught on fire and burned up.

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