When Ira Nielsen founded Nielsen’s Popcorn and Peanuts 100 years ago, the Washington State Fair was called the Valley Fair, and a sack of popcorn cost a nickel. 

Over the past century, the business has supported several generations of Nielsens, according to Eric Nielsen, whose parents, Rick and Carmelita, own the seasonal business and operate it alongside him and his sister, Christie. The business also has added homemade caramel corn, popcorn balls, brittle bars, candy, and taffy to its menu offerings.

And while the Nielsen family has seen the State Fair evolve over the years — in its early days, the annual event lasted three days — Nielsen’s Popcorn and Peanuts has largely remained the same. Antique Viking poppers pop the corn. Claw-foot copper kettles cook the candy, and the taffy is cut by hand. 

Eric Nielsen, Camelita Nielsen, and Rick Nielsen
Photo by Jeff Hobson

Eric Nielsen: Nielsen’s Popcorn and Peanuts expanded through the years, as did the State Fair — both in acreage and duration. When Rick and (his brother) Paul were kids shucking peanuts, the State Fair was an eight-day spectacle that started the Saturday after Labor Day.

We have gone through several economies of scale, expanding to 12 locations until the mid-2000s before the business downsized to a core six locations centrally based around the Grandstand. 

On average, we bring on 50 seasonal employees for our six locations, putting an average of $50,000 in wages back into the economy. Luckily, over 60 percent of our staff return every year, including a team member who has been with us for over 40 years. 

We operate as a hobby business, with each of us holding other primary jobs elsewhere and taking vacation time to be a part of the State Fair. We receive requests to purchase our products outside of the fairground, but will most likely only be available at the State Fair for the duration of the business.