“Do One Thing, And Do it Better than Anyone.” The slogan from a 1987 commercial for Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn was a fairly accurate assessment of the popcorn giant’s life’s work. The bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing character who hawked his “lighter and fluffier” snack that “eats better, too!” in a series of television commercials was not only the company’s quirky mascot.
Though marketing the product was one of the secrets of Redenbacher’s success, the Clay County native was a well-educated agronomist and lifelong farmer. Born near Brazil, Indiana in 1907, Orville was raised on his father’s 160-acre farm and started developing popcorn hybrids as a kid in 4-H. He declined an opportunity to attend West Point in order to further his study of hybridization in the agronomy program at Purdue. After graduating in 1928, he taught vocational school and worked as an agent for the farm bureau.
During the 40’s, the man known as “Reddie” managed the 12,000-acre Princeton Farms in Gibson County owned by Indy 500 racetrack owner Tony Hulman, Jr. In 1951, he bought a small seed company and started Chester Hybrids with partner Charlie Bowman. While making great profits selling farm supplies, the duo continued cross-pollinating popcorn varieties and perfecting an ear-corn drying technique that minimized the percentage of unpopped kernels.
In the meantime, popcorn sales in the U.S. were experiencing a resurgence in the 50s, after the industry–which had strong ties to box-office sales–starting marketing its product as the perfect snack for the new TV-watching audience. The Redbow Popcorn Company started in 1970, releasing its flagship product–Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn–the following year. Though the Valparaiso-based company was sold to Hunt-Wesson in 1976, its founder continued to star in the brand’s TV ad campaign.
ConAgra Foods bought out Hunt-Wesson in 1990. The popcorn king lived out his later years in Coronado, California, but was rumored occasionally to return in a white limousine to the site of the Clay County farmstead where he was raised–on State Road 42 east of route 59–and ask to drink water from an extant well. Redenbacher suffered a heart attack and drowned in his bath in 1995.
Popcorn is still an Indiana farm staple, with Hoosier farms representing almost a quarter of the nation’s total crop production. Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn is still the top-selling brand of popcorn in the United States.
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