One of the most famous sights at Wisner Park’s summer market is the restored antique popcorn truck that was originally owned and operated by Frank Romeo from 1930 until his retirement in 1971. Many people who remember Romeo and his truck have fond, nostalgic memories of the kind man who sold popcorn, peanuts, and other treats in the park. Not many are aware of the struggles that he went through to become a beloved fixture in downtown.
|The Popcorn Man by Lori Mustico|
|Frank and Constantina Mustico Romeo with the popcorn truck, 1971|
In those early days, however, Romeo had not settled on that corner of the park as the only location of his business. In July 1929, he had a popcorn and soft drink stand on West Miller Street in front of the Southside playground. On the night of July 10th, a drunk driver crashed his vehicle into the stand. Romeo received $335 from the driver in $10 weekly installments to cover the damages done. A clerk who happened to be at the stand at the time also received $60 for hospital expenses and to replace his clothing that was ruined in the crash.
|Little Red Wagon Set by Talitha Botsford|
No person shall permit any vehicle owned or controlled by him to stop upon or anywise encumber any public streets or places within the City of Elmira…for a longer period than 15 minutes along any block while engaged in selling or offering for sale any provisions or merchandise;…and no person shall erect or maintain any booth or stand, nor place any barrels, boxes, crates or other obstructions upon any such public street or places for the purpose of selling or exposing for sale any provision or merchandise.
Romeo’s arrest came after Alderman John B. Sheehe registered a complaint on the floor of the Common Council against the operation of freelance street peddlers. He introduced a resolution directing police Chief Elvin D. Weaver to act to enforce the ordinance. Romeo’s friends and fellow military veterans rallied around him after his arrest, believing he was being discriminated against. No other merchants had been arrested even though nearly every grocer or fruit dealer in the city was in violation of the ordinance for having boxes and crates full of merchandise on the sidewalks in front of their businesses.
Romeo pled not guilty before the Recorder’s Court and was represented by Attorney Harry Markson, a veteran himself of World War I. After the war, veterans were given state licenses to operate as peddlers. Romeo had such a license as well as a city permit to operate his business. The city’s recorder found Romeo not guilty of violating the ordinance regulating the operation of street peddlers and ruled that he had a legal right to sell his wares any place in the city at any time because of the ex-serviceman’s license he held. The recorder also noted that any peddler without such a license was in violation of the law and would be punished.
|Elmira Star-Gazette, April 26, 1930|
Even when the city put in parking meters, public outcry led the city to set aside the parking space for Romeo for as long as he wanted it. And he stayed there until he retired in 1971. He was in his 70s at the time and had become a bit jaded by conditions in the area. His popcorn wagon was vandalized on occasion, once having its tires slit. In an interview several years after his retirement he said, “It was those park people. The hippies. I couldn’t see staying open just for them.”
|Popcorn truck on the highway, 1971|
|When the popcorn truck returned to the city in 1988, 25 1-pound bags of the original popcorn Romeo had purchased were found in the back.|