Hacon keeps corn poppin'

Fairgoers aren't the only ones who enjoy Tom Hacon's popcorn.
CANFIELD -- You might think Tom Hacon would be tired of popcorn after working his popcorn machine all day, every day, at the Canfield Fair.
You'd be wrong.
The 83-year-old Austintown man uses a compressor-powered machine to make popcorn for anyone who wants a snack at the fair, but he also pops corn for people in his neighborhood.
"I'll make some when the neighborhood kids show up at the door. They seem pretty hungry," Hacon said.
Hacon has five popcorn machines that he built to run on steam power. He can prove it by rolling up the sleeves of his flannel shirt to show the burns on his forearms.
These days, however, the machines are powered by an air compressor. The wheels and pulleys on the machines shake a large steel bowl that holds the popcorn and oil. Hacon has built a metal container to hold the bowl so that it can shake but not tip over. The oil is heated with a burner that uses propane.
Hacon, a former mechanic for bowling alley equipment, buys some new parts when he builds a machine, but he also uses valves and other metal parts from scrap yards and motorcycles and other items.
What he does
Hacon pops about 400 pounds of corn kernels a year at the fair, and it's all handed out for free. He dumps the popcorn into a large bowl, and fairgoers scoop out some and put it into cups that Hacon provides.
Hacon said he has no plans to curtail his popping at the fair, but he has had to cut back on how much he makes at home. It used to be that he kept corn popping most days in his garage. The neighborhood children could stop by for some whenever they liked.
Pretty soon, more and more children moved into the neighborhood, and Hacon realized things were getting carried away.
"I couldn't get anything done," he said.
Then one day, a man in a sports car pulled into his driveway.
"Popcorn done?" the man asked. "That did it," Hacon said.
Now, he just pops corn if the neighborhood children stop by.
Even though he makes a lot of popcorn, Hacon's real love is for the engines that shake the corn. He first started coming to the fair in 1984 to show the small, tabletop, steam-powered engines he had built.
People kept asking what these engines could do, so he'd rattle off a list that included making popcorn. After five years of showing the machines, he didn't get the feeling that most people could grasp what he was talking about.
He had experimented with a popcorn machine in his garage, so he decided to bring one out.
"They really knew what I was talking about then. I kept running out of oil and popcorn," he said.
What sparked idea
Hacon, a native of South Greensburg, Pa., got the idea for his popcorn machines by remembering when his father took him to a carnival in Latrobe, Pa., when he was 9. They stopped at the popcorn wagon. His father couldn't afford to pay the 10 cents for a bag of popcorn, but Hacon remembers not even caring because he was fascinated with the small steam engine that shook the corn.
After retiring from a 32-year career at AMF Bowling Products, Hacon turned to the encyclopedia and other books to learn how to make a steam engine. He was so intrigued by their operation that he started bringing them to the fair so others could enjoy them.
After 22 years as an exhibitor, Hacon said his love for showing his machines and meeting people at the fair hasn't waned a bit.
"One time they had a meeting and they asked for suggestions on how to make the fair better," he said. "I told them they don't keep the fair running long enough."

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