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Redenbacher, Orville

Redenbacher, Orville

(b. 16 July 1907 near Brazil, Indiana; d. 19 September 1995 in Coronado, California), agronomist and businessman known as the self-proclaimed “Popcorn King.”

Redenbacher was one of four children of William Redenbacher, a farmer, and Julia Magdelena Dierdoff, a home-maker. According to his biographer, Len Sherman, Orville was named after the aviation pioneer Orville Wright because of William Redenbacher’s respect for the Wright brothers and their accomplishments. The entire family helped maintain the farm. Young Redenbacher helped with the chores and by age ten was tending the straw blower on the threshing rig during harvest. Two years later he began raising corn—the crop that would one day make him famous. His parents allowed him to keep the money he earned from selling his crop in nearby Brazil and Terre Haute, Indiana.

Redenbacher was the first in his family to attend high school, traveling approximately fourteen miles from the farm to Brazil, because they offered a vocational agriculture course. While in school he was a member of the Clay County 4-H club, becoming a team state champion in the dairy, poultry, egg, and corn categories. In individual competition, Redenbacher placed second in a national dairy competition held in Syracuse, New York. During this time he adopted the Clay County agricultural agent Horace Abbott as his mentor. He graduated from Brazil High School in 1924. Although Redenbacher had an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his love of agriculture led him instead to the School of Agriculture at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

During his years at Purdue, Redenbacher played the sousaphone in the Purdue marching band, joined the track team, edited the student newspaper, participated in the local 4-H club, and joined Alpha Gamma Rho, a local fraternity. When he was not in school, Redenbacher earned tuition and board by working at the Purdue hog and cattle farms. In his senior year he met Corinne Rosemond Strate, a journalism student at Indiana University.

After receiving a B.S. degree from Purdue in June 1928, Redenbacher chose to teach vocational agriculture, biology, industrial arts, and seventh and eighth grade agriculture at the Fontanet (Indiana) High School. He chose to live in Fontanet because it was close to his parents’ home in Brazil and only an hour car ride from Indiana University and his girlfriend, Corinne. They were married on 26 December 1928 and had three daughters.

Redenbacher’s interest in popcorn was strengthened by his interaction with the hybrid corn seed specialist Arthur Brunson and George Christie, head of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Purdue. Both encouraged Redenbacher to continue the experiments he began on his parents’ farm. In 1929 Redenbacher realized one of his dreams when his friend and mentor Abbott became an agent for Terre Haute and Vigo County and asked Redenbacher to take his place as the Clay County agricultural agent.

In 1932, when Abbott became the agent for Marion County, he asked Redenbacher to take his place as agent for Vigo County. Redenbacher gladly accepted the position and worked hard to improve the farmers’ situation in Vigo. He pioneered the use of radio to broadcast crop reports and farm news. However, the Great Depression and drought conditions drove many farmers out of business, leaving Redenbacher discouraged. His fortunes changed when the owners of the Princeton Mining Company approached him about managing their 12,000-acre farm near Princeton, Indiana, in exchange for a home, a $4,500-a-year salary, and 10 percent of the farm’s profits. Redenbacher had varied success with crops on the land, but it gave him the chance to test his hybrid corn seed and the hybrid popcorn seed he had developed at Purdue. By 1944 he was raising his popping corn for the supermarket industry as well as other crops on his farmland. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he became one of the first farmers to store liquid fertilizer, which he also produced and distributed, and to use it on his crops.

In 1940 Redenbacher formed a partnership with fellow Purdue graduate Charles Bowman. Together they purchased the George F. Chester and Son Seed Company and began to produce crop seeds (hybrid corn and others) for several large eastern agricultural businesses. When their business began to grow, Redenbacher moved his family to Valparaiso, Indiana. In 1953 he and Bowman went into business full-time. The company changed its name from Chester Hybrids to Chester, Inc., and was involved in a number of agricultural endeavors. Beginning in 1959 the partners, joined by another popcorn advocate, Carl Hart-man, continued tinkering with hybrid popcorn seeds. In 1965, after years of experiments and cross-pollinating, they developed the hybrid corn seed that would make them famous. They sold it under the name RedBow, combining the names of the two principal originators of the hybrid corn seed and paying homage to Redenbacher’s ever-present red bow tie.

Despite the fact that the three men had come up with a popcorn that was lighter and fluffier than most and left few unpopped kernels, RedBow was also more expensive, and many stores and businesses thought the investment was not worth the money. Redenbacher and his team nevertheless stood by their product, citing Redenbacher’s belief, “Give the people a better product, and they’ll beat a path to your door.” They began to market RedBow themselves and, after consulting Gerson, Howe and Johnson, an advertising firm in Chicago, changed the name to Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn. Their marketing campaign featured Redenbacher himself, and the popcorn was first sold at Marshall Field’s department store and specialty stores in the Midwest, where it attracted the attention of Blue Plate Foods, a subsidiary of Hunt-Wesson Foods, based in Fullerton, California.

In 1971, just as Redenbacher was about to realize his greatest triumph, Corinne died of a bleeding ulcer. In the next few years, Bowman and Redenbacher found that they could not keep up with the demands of their booming popcorn business. In 1976 they signed a deal with Hunt-Wesson that turned over their popcorn to the company in exchange for Redenbacher becoming the spokesperson. Redenbacher began a whirlwind tour of the United States promoting his gourmet popping corn. Meanwhile, he married family friend Nina Reder on 27 October 1971. She joined him in his cross-country tours and continued to do so until her death in 1991.

Hunt-Wesson renegotiated with Redenbacher and Bowman, agreeing to use the Redenbacher label into perpetuity. His gourmet popping corn continued to be one of the company’s big sellers. Over the years, Hunt-Wesson was bought by a succession of companies, which all were committed to continue selling Redenbacher’s popping corn.

Redenbacher presented himself just as he was—a folksy, honest, and friendly person. He appeared on many programs, including CBS This Morning, Hee-Haw, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He made numerous television commercials about his product, including several with his grandson, Gary Fish-Redenbacher, and one with members of his family.

Redenbacher was also a philanthropist, working in President Dwight Eisenhower’s People to People Program, which encouraged an exchange of ideas between people on an individual level. He visited 134 nations and eventually became the chairperson of the program. He was also a Kiwanis member and a supporter of 4-H and the Easter Seals Program. He and Gary supported the 1992 U.S. national volleyball teams and created the Orville Redenbacher’s Second Start Scholarship Program, designed to help older students who wanted make a second start.

Redenbacher loved getting together with his extended family for visits and trips across the country. The family was in the midst of planning their next trip when he died of a heart attack in his apartment in Coronado, California, where he had moved in the mid-1970s, at the age of eighty-eight. His cremated ashes were scattered at sea.

Redenbacher’s Orville Redenbacher’s Popcorn Book (1984) contains recipes and brief autobiographical information. Redenbacher’s biography, by Len Sherman, with Robert Topping, Popcorn King: How Orville Redenbacher and His Popcorn Charmed America (1996), provides a detailed recounting of the subject’s life from birth to death. People Weekly (2 Oct. 1995) has a tribute to Redenbacher, with comments from Gary Fish-Redenbacher. See also Andrew Smith, Popped Culture (1999). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune (both 20 Sept. 1995).

Brian B. Carpenter

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