John DeVito, Watertown’s Well-Known Popcorn Man Who Served His Goods to Generations of Families
In the 1920s, if not sooner, John DeVito began his life-long career selling popcorn and various other treats in Watertown and the surrounding area. He became affectionately known as “The Popcorn Man” to generations of families before retiring in his late 70s, which, if memory serves correctly, wasn’t too long before his death in 1983. To get an idea of how long he sold popcorn when he placed bids for concessions at Thompson Park nearly 100 years ago, the Watertown Daily Times still referred to it as City Park.
Born in 1903 in Postiglione, Province of Salerno, Italy, to Michele (Michael) and Maria Louisa Onembo DeVito, John DeVito came to the United States at only three months old. The family first lived in Saul St. Marie, Michigan, until 1910, when they relocated permanently to Watertown.
Upon their arrival, Michael DeVito was an ice cream maker and operated an ice cream and confectionary store in the basement of 100 Public Square, the building later home to Lantern Tobacco and, previously, Barrett Cigar store on the American Corner. Michael joined the Public Works department in 1911, working there for 21 years before retiring, at least as a city worker. During that time, he continued his business selling ice cream, peanuts, and presumably popcorn via a horse-drawn ice cream wagon that was involved in an accident in 1917 at the corner of Fair and Coffeen Street, not far from the homestead in The Flats at 147 Smith Street.
In 1932, Michael built the New Parrot Restaurant on outer Washington Street, a restaurant he ran for six years before selling it to his son, Louis “Jake” DeVito, before building the New Parrot Stand adjacent to the property and running it for years. Sometime between 1917 and the 1920s, John DeVito learned the ropes of selling peanuts and popcorn from his father, taking over the business. And, of course, they weren’t the only restauranteurs in the family, Angeline “Ann” DeVito Bryant, John’s younger sister, had the equally popular Ann’s Stand, later Ann’s Restaurant, on outer Arsenal Street, which was a staple in Watertown from 1938 to 2005.
Other than bidding on the concession contracts at Thompson Park in 1928, the earliest mention of John DeVito’s burgeoning popcorn career proved to be rocky. In the early hours of August 2, 1929, DeVito was involved in an automobile accident, leaving Brownville and returning to Watertown at approximately 2 a.m. A passenger, Mildred Eveileigh, suffered a broken leg while John escaped with minor bruises and some slight cuts, though he was pinned between the steering wheel and seat until a driver from Rochester came upon him a few minutes after the accident.
The Watertown Daily Times wrote of the incident–
Mr. DeVito, who operates an ice cream, soft drink and pop corn wagon, said he was returning from Brownville about 2 this morning and was about a mile from this city on the Coffeen Street road. He started up a small hill when the lights of a car approaching blinded him. Mr. DeVito said he pulled his car to the right to get by the machine.
“Just as I was passing the machine my right front wheel ran off the roadway and onto the shoulder,” said Mr. DeVito. “When I got past the car, I pulled the machine sharply to the left to get it back on the road. Before I could get the truck under control, it shot over to the left side of the road and ran into the ditch and crashed into the pole”
Mr. DeVito said the front of the machine was completely demolished. The radiator and motor were shoved back into the seat and the top of the cab was damaged.
Evidently, Mildred didn’t hold the accident against John as she married him six years later in a December 1935 wedding. The wedding announcement placed Mildred living at 110 High Street and John at the family home, 147 Smith Street, with employment as a gas station attendant.
The couple eventually moved to 138 William Street, where they lived for the remainder of their lives. It was there that, in July 1951, a juvenile circus was given by a group of “young talent chosen from the vicinity of William, High, and Academy Streets.” One of the participants was John DeVito, Jr., with the ages of the performers ranging from nine to eleven years.
A nominal fee was charged for admission, and the youngsters not only raised $10 but they also agreed to donate it to the local American Cancer Society. Besides John DeVito Jr., the children included Brian, Bruce and David Sinclair, Peggy Brisland, Richard Gibbons, Carol Peck, Jean Marino, James Roberts, Billy Frank, Sharon and Sally Burdick, Raymond LaFaivre, and Charles Currier.
One of the drawbacks of being a popular draw with sweets and goods was the theft of goods often followed. While living on Williams Street, there were numerous reports in the Watertown Daily Times of break-ins to DeVito’s garage, where the goodies were kept. In April 1966, two boxes of ice cream bars were reported stolen along with $3 in Canadian Coins. It was the third time the building had been entered in the past 12 months. Six years later, 10 boxes of ice cream valued at $24 were stolen, though four boxes were later found behind the garage, presumably melted.
October of 1968 saw John Devito as the subject of a column in the Watertown Daily Times, having provided concessions to Watertown High School football games and school district events 35 years and counting, dating back to 1933. The Times reported of his longevity–
Mr. DeVito is back with his shiny white popcorn truck again this fall to serve the youngsters. He has been W.H.S. concessionaire since 1933. Over the years he has sold at scholastic games at the old Knickerbocker field, the fairgrounds, North Side playground field and the present high school field. When he first started selling popcorn at games, he dispensed his wares from a pushcart. He bought a truck in 1949 and has operated from that since.
At first his ware were just popcorn and peanuts. In later years, he added soft drinks, ice cream and hot dogs. While talking about the high school concession business, John said people who used to purchase refreshments from him as boys are now fathers and, in some cases, grandfathers. He said many men tell him they used to enjoy his popcorn and peanuts when they were students attending games.
Asked about how many boxes and bags of popcorn he has dispensed, John laughed and replied “tons and tons of them.” Mr. DeVito said he still enjoys the high school “kids” and the spirit at games.
In addition to selling popcorn, ice cream, soft drinks, and peanuts, John DeVito was also known as the “Christmas Tree King,” having sold hundreds of trees each holiday season in Watertown.
There was no mention of when exactly John DeVito retired from selling his popcorn and goods, but this writer seems to believe it was around 1980-81, which would have been just a matter of a couple of years before his death in 1983.
Several generations undoubtedly have fond memories of hearing his popcorn truck making its way down the various streets in their neighborhood and the anticipation of lining up street side as he pulled over to attend to the mixture of kids and their parents who introduced them to the simple pleasures of their own childhood youth.