Actually, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike, the historic Downer Avenue popcorn wagon and a Water Tower neighborhood artist didn’t walk into a bar.
But the three were connected in a different way — they all played roles in a well known 1965 children’s book, “A Child’s Calendar.”
The text of the book was written by Updike, who wrote “Rabbit, Run,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and many other acclaimed works. The original illustrator of the book was Nancy Ekholm Burkert, who lived for many years in a charming early 1900’s Georgian Revival clapboard home at 3228 N. Marietta Ave., here in the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood. And Burkert’s lovely drawing of the historic Downer Avenue popcorn wagon graced a page of “A Child’s Calendar.”
Burkert was also the original illustrator of “James and the Giant Peach” and won a Caldecott Honor in 1973 for “Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
In “A Child’s Calendar,” her drawing of the Downer popcorn wagon illustrates Updike’s poem about the month of May. Updike began the poem: “Now children may, go out of doors, without their coats, to candy stores.”
The historic popcorn wagon was a fixture on the corner of Downer Avenue E. Bellview Place from 1916 to 2007, when it was removed by a developer to make way for a new parking structure. According to a city history written before its removal:
“Milwaukee’s oldest popcorn wagon has reputedly stood at this site since 1916 and it might be one of the oldest, working popcorn wagons in America. Made of wood and metal, it is reminiscent of a small, nineteenth century peddler’s wagon. The interior still retains some of its original, steam-powered popcorn-making equipment although the apparatus is now powered by electricity. Research has not yet revealed just how old the wagon really is, but according to local folklore and the recollections of some East Side residents who have since passed away, the wagon has been standing there and in continuous use since about 1916. Originally the wagon was portable and could roll about, but many years ago it became a permanent part of the district when it was embedded into a poured concrete foundation….Several popcorn wagons of similar design dotted the city’s major thoroughfares before and after World War II but today all of the other historic wagons have vanished.”
In 2008, the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission issued a Certificate of Appropriateness for the new parking structure to be built on the site. Under the terms of the certificate, the developer was allowed to remove the historic wagon but was supposed to preserve it and return it to the Downer area. Despite the requirement, the wagon’s current whereabouts and condition are uncertain.
The last article we’ve seen on the wagon’s fate suggested at the time that it might be for sale.
- “As Joni Mitchell once sang – They have paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
- “I think of Mrs. M’s –– and the popcorn with coconut oil, the candy wristwatches, among other delights –– every time I wait on that corner for the light to change.”
- “A great loss.”
- “At least in the mid to late 90s when I ran that popcorn wagon with a friend, there were no remains of steam powered popcorn making equipment.”
- “Where is it now?”
- “Little candies on white paper strips across from the Downer theater!!”