A River Falls icon, Pop’s Corn, to be restored

Truck served countless youth over the decades

By Sarah Nigbor
Posted 9/14/23

RIVER FALLS – Be on the lookout for a piece of history at this year’s Bacon Bash in the form of Clarence “Pop” Armstrong’s Poptcorn Wagon.

According to River Falls …

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A River Falls icon, Pop’s Corn, to be restored

Truck served countless youth over the decades


RIVER FALLS – Be on the lookout for a piece of history at this year’s Bacon Bash in the form of Clarence “Pop” Armstrong’s Poptcorn Wagon.

According to River Falls historian and Alderperson Jeff Bjork, he and other community members have launched a campaign to bring the former snack truck that was part of many River Falls’ kids memories back to life.

The 1948 milk truck has been sitting long abandoned in Jerry’s Towing & Repair’s yard off Main Street. It’s rusting, dilapidated and rotten, but that’s not going to deter Bjork and his crew.

“It’s been sitting at Jerry’s for over 20 years,” Bjork said. “A family of raccoons lives in it now and bees.”


Armstrong purchased the truck in 1958 as an adjunct to his retail business, Armstrong’s Gift & Variety Store on Main Street, according to an article written in 2018 by his daughter, Kay Armstrong Baker. Pop and his wagon quickly became an icon for River Falls youth.

“There was a corn popper in the rear, a place to melt the butter (real butter), a cotton candy machine, a place for candy and a freezer for ice cream bars,” Baker wrote. “Pop taught me how to drive the wagon, plug it into the power source, pop the corn and be ready for business.”

Pop’s Corn could be found during the hot summer days at Glen Park pool, and other times around town, such as outside the Five & Dime at Main and Walnut streets, football games, or across from campus. He served not only fresh popcorn, but Bubble Up, Rondo soda, Coke, Tab, fruit-flavored sodas, snow cones, frozen candy bars, ice cream and more. He was not only a salesman, but a man many confided in and looked up to, according to a Facebook discussion on the “You know you grew up in River Falls, WI if…” page.

Bjork, who is working on the project with Dave Wilkens, started talk of restoring the truck five years ago. Then he had a brain aneurysm and Pop’s Corn, like much in his life, was put on hold. Covid then hit in 2020 and everyone’s lives were paused.

“Nobody got it going,” Bjork said. “I didn’t have the same spark or energy since then, but I still shared photos of it from time to time.”

A recent photo posted in the group by Mark Jenkins of the truck’s current condition gained a lot of attention and got the ball rolling with renewed vigor. Bjork, Wilkens and Dave Hegre, who has the title to the truck and bought it from Armstrong in the 80s, plan to take it to Wilkens’ shop in Roberts where it will be restored to its former glory. It will not be drivable, but it will be towable and taken to events. Todd “Gilby” Gilbertson has agreed to paint the truck following the old lettering, Bjork said.

“This is going to be really cosmetic,” Bjork said. “Wilkens is supplying all the labor and services and we will purchase the paint.”

The group is also working with a local attorney on ownership options, whether that be a private entity or a civic organization.

“Dave Hegre is willing to pass it on,” Bjork said. “I think we want to keep ownership and lease it out for nothing but fundraisers. The biggest thing will be the nostalgia and stepping back in time. This is a chance to preserve this icon and give people a chance to gather and reminisce about their stories.”

Bjork is unsure how much it will cost to restore the truck, but is guessing into the thousands. He and other volunteers still need to come up with a budget.

“We don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Bjork said. “Maybe we will set up a Gofundme or maybe use a local 501c3 as an umbrella organization. We would rather the money all stay in town.”

After Pop

David Hegre is the current titleholder of the iconic truck. He purchased it sometime in the early 1980s along with Roger Engebreth. He grew up in Buffalo Lake, Minn., where he had memories of a special popcorn machine that always appealed to him. When he moved to River Falls, Pop’s Corn caught his eye. The small business environment was in his blood.

Hegre worked at Kulstad’s Clothing in downtown River Falls. One day he approached Armstrong at the store about selling the wagon.

“Pop said for sure, as hew as planning to move to Florida and retire,” Hegre said. “I could not afford what Mr. Armstrong was asking and it was sold to the Middlestedts and Nicholsons.”

Hegre and Engebreth bought it from those families in the early 80s. The first day they went into business was the UW-River Falls Homecoming parade, which was a circus for the two newcomers.

“We had no idea how to run the equipment and really didn’t know anything about what they had,” Hegre said. “At the end of the day there was money on the floor and in the sno-cone machine and all over. It was a mess to say the least, a real crazy day.”

Engebreth left the business to Hegre after two years to manage a bank in Durand. Hegre operated the truck with wife Mary and children Erik and Dana until 1994, along with many employees. Some names people might recognize, he said, are Kevin Black, Shawn Curtis, Betsy Brandt, Melissa Hoopman, and Lee Engebreth, along with many college students and more.

“Poptcorn served many roles within River Falls and acted as a somewhat park patrol, helping police “fights,” sheltering kids during storms, and cleaning the park by picking up the garbage,” Hegre said. “The wagon was a welcome sight for many, many kids in River Falls.”

Fees and insurance costs caused Hegre to close the wagon in 1994, as well as his kids graduating high school and moving on. However, he still used the cotton candy machine at school events and around town for many years.

When Jerry’s requested the wagon be removed from its lot, Hegre knew he couldn’t completely get rid of a River Falls icon. He’s glad the restoration is taking place.

“Bring back the wagon,” he said. “It will be wonderful and make lots of people happy.”

Bjork said the vision is to operate it 40-45 days per year, with no salaried workers, but volunteers donating time or working to fundraise for a community club.

Clarence 'Pop' Armstrong, Pop's Corn, Poptcorn Wagon, River Falls, Wisconsin