Public History Intern Blog: Thomas Weller

In our fourth Public History Blog, History Department Senior Thomas Weller describes some of the Champaign Urbana History he found during his Fall 2019 internship at the Champaign County Historical Museum.

On the second floor of the Champaign County Historical Museum, there is the research library. The room is small but it feels homely instead of cramped. The first thing that greets you when you walk into the room is the smell of old paper. filing cabinetsAged books fill all of the shelves, waiting to be read. The library not only contains books but also has, among other things, a filing cabinet filled with manilla folders labeled with titles such as “Krannert Center” or “Savoy, IL”. Each folder is full of papers such as newspaper clippings, maps, and brochures about the corresponding place, person or organization.

Unfortunately these folders have gotten mixed up over the years and it was the job of the interns to sort them out. I had a master list of every single file that was supposed to be in the cabinet and I had to go through each folder, taking out things that didn’t belong and noting on the list what sorts of things were inside. This may sound rather tedious but actually it was a great opportunity to look at different aspects of Champaign County’s history. I found a lot of interesting things in there, one of which I am going to share with you all today. 

I found a folder simply titled “Popcorn Wagon”, which piqued my curiosity. Inside there were several newspaper articles about a man named Henry Sansone and his popcorn truck which he operated for over 50 years. Looking up Sansone and the popcorn wagon online yielded few results other than one article by the Champaign County Historical Museum itself. Thus, the only information I had to work with about this man and his wagon were the materials in the folder. Piecing together his story became a sort of puzzle, which is part of the fun of archivist work anyway. 

Picture1The first newspaper article was from January 24, 1954 and it set up a clash betweenSansone and the Champaign city authorities. The city had passed an ordinance outlawing the sale of merchandise from vehicles parked on the streets. It wasn’t drafted to specifically harm Sansone but his popcorn wagon fell under the ordinence’s requirements. Notice was given to Sansone to cease his sale of popcorn.

The magic of archives allows us to become time travelers, so I was able to skip ahead to the next article from February 17th.  Here, Sansone stated that he was temporarily out of business and was looking for a new place to sell his popcorn. Evidently, he didn’t find such a place because on February 23rd he tried to sell his popcorn and was arrested by Champaign police. Sansone indicated at the end of the article that he was planning on getting an attorney and contesting the case. The very next day, he was arrested again for selling popcorn on the street and the case went to trial. 

On March 4, 1954, the paper reported that after 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury was divided five to one for Sansone’s acquittal. The judge ruled that a hung jury was equal to an acquittal, leading to Sansone’s release from his charges. Victorious, Sansone resumed his business as usual.

Truck 2 closeThe story then jumped to October 12, 1974 when it was announced that after 57 years of popping, Sansone was ready to sell his popcorn truck and retire. In reflecting on his half-century long career, two historic dates stood out in his mind. “One was a 1939 sale of a bag of popcorn to the late great Cardinal baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean. The other was a 1954 court fight to continue selling popcorn in downtown Champaign.” The article also gave a quick recap not only of the court fight but also of Sansone’s origins. He started his business in 1924, operating from a pushcart. He purchased his famous popcorn truck from his brother in 1935. He died two years after the story about his retirement, in 1976. 

Looking at the story of Henry Sansone allows us to ask questions about the importance of local community archives, like the one in the Champaign County Historical Museum. Henry Sansone obviously was well-loved back in his day. And yet, I had never heard of him and I would be surprised if any of you had heard of him either. 

His significance comes from his importance to the local community. He is no longer a part of the current culture of Champaign but has instead faded into history. Now his story remains in a manilla folder, one out of hundreds, in a cabinet in a small library. Being just a single story out of hundreds, I doubt that many people have looked through his manilla folder besides myself and other museum staff. This could lead some people to question the purpose of it all. Why keep so much old material if most of it is almost never read? 

However, I disagree with this sentiment. Discovering Sansone’s story allows us to immerse ourselves in the experiences of the past. If these documents had not been stored, then Sansone’s story may have been lost forever. At the very least, the documents allowed me to share the tale of Sansone’s popcorn wagon, and the joy it brought to so many people. A little bit of Champaign’s history has been brought back into living memory, if only for a little while. 

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