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Orville Redenbacher (1907-1995)

David-Caldwell-as-Orville-Redenbacher.pngOrville-in-corn-field.pngTo help celebrate Purdue University’s 150th anniversary in 2019, the Purdue University Retirees Association (PURA) recruited some of its members to portray historic characters from Purdue’s past.

The reenactors researched their characters, developed costumes and personas, then appeared at a number of public events sharing the stories of these important Purdue figures with the public.

David Cardwell, pictured here, portrayed Orville Redenbacher.


Orville Clarence Redenbacher was born July 16, 1907, in the Jackson Township farm home of 205 acres, about seven miles south of the town of Brazil, in west central Indiana’s Clay County. His parents were Will and Julie Redenbacher, who also were the parents of older siblings Elsie, Mabel, and Karl.

At about twelve, Orville began to raise popping corn and sold it on the cob in fifty pound sacks to stores in nearby Brazil and Terre Haute. His sales started at a mere $10 to $50 a month, but his persistence eventually increased sales by as much as $150 monthly with some stashed away for college.

One of Orville’s most positive influences in high school was Horace Abbott, Clay County’s first agricultural extension agent for the Purdue Extension Service. Abbott’s duties included the supervision of all 4-H activities in the county. He also encouraged the high school’s vocational agriculture students. Abbott instantly became Orville’s hero and role model and as early as his freshman year in high school, Orville had set his sights on becoming a county agent like Abbott, a Purdue graduate in agriculture.

Orville found himself in the 4-H dent corn, poultry, calf, and garden clubs, and two years later on the state champion poultry, egg and corn judging 4-H teams. Eventually he was on the state championship team, which earned him the right to go to the national competition on the 4-H dairy judging team, where he placed second, individually, in the national competition.

His outstanding achievements at Brazil High School won him an appointment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. But at sixteen, he didn’t meet the minimum age requirement. The issue was moot because he had already made up his mind several years earlier that he was going to study agriculture at Purdue University.

When it was time to attend college, Orville went to Purdue at age 17 with a friend and visited Alpha Gamma Rho (AGR) fraternity. Since he had made no plans for lodging at Purdue, he and his friend were immediately asked to pledge Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and moved in the day they arrived. In 1928, he earned his Purdue Agriculture Bachelor’s degree in Agronomy.

While at Purdue, he played tuba in the “All-American” Marching Band and was editor of the Debris yearbook, the Purdue Agriculturist magazine, and the Purdue Exponent student newspaper, and also ran track.

Upon graduation from Purdue in 1928, Orville took a job teaching Vocational Agriculture at Fontanet, a tiny town northeast of Terre Haute, Indiana. It didn’t actually have a Vocational Agriculture program nor an industrial arts teacher, so he was asked to teach vocational agriculture, a class in biology and a class in industrial arts, plus seventh and eighth-grade agriculture. He also found time to organize Fontanet’s first 4-H clubs. The day after Christmas in 1928, he asked Corinne Rosemond Strate to marry him.

Before his first year of teaching was up, he was asked by Horace Abbott, his former mentor in Clay County and now in Vigo County, to become the county 4-H club agent. At not quite age 22, Orville was euphoric and was also soon to become a father. Orville was the coach for the Vigo County dairy-judging team that won a state championship. He also organized the nation’s first 4-H Junior Leadership club and organized and directed the first Indiana 4-H Junior Leadership camp sponsored by the Indiana District Kiwanis clubs. On April 1, 1932, Orville became the County Agent in Vigo County. The county fair had been abandoned in 1910 and in 1930, Orville led the effort to revive the county fair, providing space and premium money for the 4-H Club program that was to be central to the event. He was the Purdue Extension county educator until 1939.

In 1939, Terre Haute citizens, Henry P. Smith and his brother Hi (the wealthy owners of some 12,000 acres of land, as well as their mines and oil wells), a third owner, Anton “Tony” Hulman (owner of a wholesale grocery company and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Smiths’ first cousin) came to Orville looking for a manager to profitably organize their company and land. They had heard about his dynamic management skill as a county agent and innovative farm broadcaster.

The Redenbachers accepted the offer and moved south to Gibson and Warrick County. On January 1, 1940, at age 32, Orville officially began the day-to-day management of the Smith brothers’ land and renamed the vast complex Princeton Farms. One year his shared income from the corn, soybeans and oats planted in the bottomlands was ruined by flooding. It was too late in the season to be replanted. Orville considered the setback not as a defeat, but to be viewed simply as lessons not to be forgotten.

In 1941, Orville began planting hybrid popcorn seed developed in the 1930’s by plant scientists at his alma mater, Purdue University. Princeton Farms was soon selling popcorn seed not only in the USA and Canada; but also in Hungary, Israel, Columbia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. In 1941, Princeton Farms began raising commercial popcorn for the supermarket trade and continued to increase acreage. By 1951, Princeton Farms was growing a popcorn hybrid Orville had developed. They were also raising beef and dairy cattle, Hampshire hogs and registered Hampshire sheep, and showed the animals at state fairs and other events. Orville erected the first liquid fertilizer storage tank in the USA.

To deal with the military draft in WWII, Orville brought in Jamaican workers until the draft was changed to exempt farm workers. He built a bunk house and kitchen near the office for the workers.

Charles Fredrick Bowman, like Orville, was an Indiana farm kid, a Purdue graduate and a frequent visitor and friend to Orville. One night while visiting Orville, Charles told Orville he had been approached about managing the oldest seed corn business in Indiana owned by George and Marie Chester. Late in 1950, George called Charles and offered to sell the business. Although Orville was seemingly set for life where he was, Charles called Orville and proposed they buy the business as partners. Orville and Corinne decided to make the move and take on the new challenge in Boone Grove.

Orville organized and became manager of Chester Hybrids with partner Charles F. Bowman in Valparaiso in 1952. That company would later go on to produce the popcorn brand that made Redenbacher a household name. A third silent partner joined them, G.L. “Jack” Findling.

Carl Hartman came on the scene in 1959, became Chester’s prime plant breeder and planted 3,000 popcorn plants of 83 varieties of popcorn on an acre of ground— each with different characteristics—to find the quality of popcorn they were hunting for. They were selling the product under the brand name RedBow Popcorn Hybrids (REDenbacher and BOWman) and Orville started wearing his signature red bow tie.

By 1965, Hartman achieved what Orville had sought for thirty-five years: light, fluffy, pop-able corn that left few if any unpopped kernels, minimal hulls, had excellent taste, and met the ultimate test of 44-to-1 ratio volume of popped to unpopped corn. Orville had a tall, clear plastic cylinder calibrated just for such a test. He wandered around the room and could only utter three words: “We made it! We made it!” It was the birth of “Gourmet” popcorn.

Great efforts were made to make the popcorn available through various marketing efforts and much publicity. Eventually after several business transactions, the popcorn business was sold to agribusiness giant ConAgra.

Corinne, Orville’s wife, was an active mother and community leader. On May 25, 1971, in a Valparaiso, Indiana, hospital at the age of 61, internal hemorrhaging brought a merciful death. At the same time, Orville lay a few doors down the hall with an ulcer resulting from overwork. He remarried later that year to his second wife, Nina Reder, who died on May 8, 1991.

Orville had moved to Coronado, California, and at age 88, death came unexpectedly. Unable to attend the 17th annual Popcorn Festival in Valparaiso on September 9, he had been able to fly to Indianapolis for a wedding, but cut his trip short and returned to California. On September 19, 1995, he apparently suffered a heart attack and was unable to get out of his Jacuzzi. His body was discovered early the next morning by the building superintendent who went to Orville’s apartment to check on a reported water leak. Orville was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.

Return to PURA Historical Character Project Page