The World’s First Hamburger

The world’s first hamburger was served in Athens, Texas, no matter what Mr. Cutlets says.

August 2009By Comments

Uncle Fletch as he may have appeared at the 1904 World’s Fair, in St. Louis.
Illustration by Bruce Hutchison

For more than a quarter of a century, Athens, Texas, has been boasting that the world’s first hamburgers were created in the late 1880’s at a small cafe on the Henderson County courthouse square run by a man known as Uncle Fletcher Davis. According to legend, Uncle Fletch took his sandwich to the 1904 World’s Fair, in St. Louis. There it was dubbed “hamburger,” a term apparently coined in derision by St. Louis citizens of Teutonic extraction who viewed as barbaric the culinary practice, native to Hamburg, Germany, of devouring large handfuls of ground beef, sometimes raw. The documentary evidence supporting this claim is strong: An article filed from the World’s Fair by a reporter for the New York Tribune described a sandwich called a hamburger, made by an unknown vendor. Nevertheless, a few other towns have tried to take credit for inventing the burger—most notably Seymour, Wisconsin; New Haven, Connecticut; and the Village of Hamburg, New York. The Athens claim has appeared more legit, partly because it received the stamp of approval from the McDonald’s Hamburger University, whose distinguished patty historians concluded that the true inventor of their cash cow was an unknown food vendor at the 1904 World’s Fair, and partly because it was based on years of detective work by the late Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert. Tolbert was something of a windbag, but he was a dogged researcher and usually got his facts right. Recent reports suggest, however, that Tolbert may have flubbed this one. Or maybe he was tricked. I decided to check it out.

Curiously, one of Tolbert’s main sources was Clint Murchison Jr., the droll, irrepressible multimillionaire sportsman who founded the Dallas Cowboys. Murchison prided himself on being a world-class practical joker; one hot Dallas summer, while a friend was away vacationing on someone’s yacht, Murchison had a crew dismantle the friend’s garden wall and hoist a 24-foot cruiser into his swimming pool.

He was also a down-home gourmet and spoke with authority when he assured Tolbert that the authentic birthplace of the hamburger was Athens, the ancestral home of the Murchison clan. Clint told Tolbert that his grandfather, banker John Murchison, had vivid memories of eating a delicious but unnamed ground-meat sandwich in the late 1880’s at the cafe across from the courthouse and next door to Murchison’s First National Bank. Grandfather Murchison didn’t remember the owner’s name, only that everyone called him Old Dave.

In 1974 Clint got a letter from his son Robert, who was studying at Yale, that included an article from the New York Times reporting the imminent closing of a New Haven landmark called Louis Lunch, which was characterized as “the birthplace of the American hamburger.” According to the article, the blessed event took place in 1900. Fearful that “if we let the Yankees get away claiming the invention of hamburgers, they’ll be going after chili next,” Murchison sprang into action. He sent Tolbert a photo of the 1904 World’s Fair midway, taken from his family archives: Someone—ostensibly Grandfather Murchison—had drawn an arrow to “Dave’s hamburger stand.” But who was Dave? Tolbert spent the next few weeks looking for the answer.

Kindree Miller, a fifth-generation potter from Athens, told him that Old Dave was the nickname given to Miller’s uncle, Fletcher Davis. Davis was also a potter, and he had moved from Webster Groves, Missouri, to Athens in the 1880’s to work for Miller’s father. He married Miller’s mother’s sister, Recilla “Ciddy” Allison, and they became known to family and friends as Uncle Fletch and Aunt Ciddy. When the pottery business slowed down a few years later, Uncle Fletch opened a little lunch counter on the courthouse square. “I remember eating what was later called a hamburger at Uncle Fletch’s cafe before I even started in the first grade,” Miller told Tolbert. When he was ten his parents took him to the 1904 fair. They stayed with Uncle Fletch and Aunt Ciddy for two weeks and ate hamburgers almost every day at Fletch’s concession booth, which was just across the midway from an exhibit featuring Geronimo and other famous warriors.

After the fair closed, Uncle Fletch went back to his trade of firing pots and never grilled another burger except at family picnics and company parties. Athens forgot about burgers and concentrated instead on being the black-eyed pea capital of the world—until 1983, when Tolbert wrote his definitive column.

His conclusions were backed up by serious flaws in the other towns’ claims. Despite what the Times story said, it seems that what Louis Lassen had served at his New Haven lunch wagon was a memorable steak sandwich and not a ground beef hamburger. The Seymour, Wisconsin, claim is based on a tale about a character called “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen who sold meatballs from an ox cart at the Outagamie County Fair in 1885. Observing that meatballs were difficult to eat while walking, Nagreen hit on the idea of serving them flattened between two slices of bread. Voilà! Based on this ad hoc meatball sandwich, Seymour claims to be the “home of the hamburger.” Hamburg’s contention must also be viewed with skepticism. According to this story, the hamburger was invented by two brothers from Akron, Ohio, who traveled a circuit of fairs and race meetings selling pork-sausage sandwiches. In the summer of 1885, as they were setting up their concession stand at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, they realized they were short of pork sausage patties. In a bind, they substituted beef patties. Thus did the laws of supply and demand temporarily create “the Hamburg sandwich.”

Athens’s title looked secure. But then, in 2007, a writer named Josh Ozersky, a.k.a. “Mr. Cutlets,” wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times Web site that shot holes in Tolbert’s account. Mr. Cutlets is also the online food editor for New York magazine and the author of Hamburgers: A Cultural History, and he had some shocking things to report. He explained that a painstaking search of the New York Tribune archives had failed to turn up any dispatch filed from the 1904 World’s Fair concerning a hamburger. More damning still, Mr. Cutlets wrote that Fletcher Davis hadn’t even been on the fair’s concession list, concluding that there was “no documentary evidence for Texas’ claim at all.”

And so, in mid-May, I took a trip to Athens to meet with Uncle Fletch’s grandnephew, Jim Allison, of Eustace, and two of his cousins, Harvey Allison, of Dallas, and Wanda Sheram, of Athens. We met at the Lake Athens Marina Restaurant, which several folks assured me made the best hamburgers in town. Harvey and Wanda brought along family archives to prove their direct lineage to the first hamburger. They wore white T-shirts embossed with a portrait of Uncle Fletch, identified as “inventor of the hamburger sandwich.”

The first thing out of their mouths was “Tolbert got a lot of things wrong.” Like what? “Well,” Wanda said, “Uncle Fletch died in 1940, not 1941.” Anything else? She opened one of the two family scrapbooks and continued, “We know that there’s no newspaper account of him cooking hamburgers until he married Aunt Ciddy, in 1896.” That would have been at least ten years after the date that Uncle Fletch was supposed to have opened his cafe on the square. One family document purports to show that Uncle Fletch arrived in Athens in the 1880’s, but neither Harvey nor Wanda has ever seen it, and they insist that he didn’t get there until 1894. Again, that date clashed with Tolbert’s timeline.

“You’re telling me he didn’t invent the hamburger?” I asked.

“Oh, no, of course he did,” Wanda said indignantly. “We’ve got a book of vendor’s tickets to prove he cooked at the World’s Fair.” On close inspection, however, I saw that the vendor’s tickets issued to Fletcher Davis identified him as “a pottery turner” representing W. S. Ceramics Co. at the fair’s Palace of Mines and Metallurgy. Nothing about hamburgers. When I asked Wanda to explain, she speculated that Uncle Fletch had used his ceramics pass to get in the door, but that he had traveled to St. Louis with the express intention of selling his hamburger sandwich on the midway. The conversation was cut short when Judy Gould, who with her husband, Peter Gould, owns the Marina Restaurant, brought my burger. It was everything they had promised—a hot, juicy beef patty on a buttered, toasted bun with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, and lots of yellow mustard. I was too busy enjoying my burger to say for sure, but I think Uncle Fletch’s kin ordered catfish.

For several days after my visit to Athens, I puzzled over the contradictions. All things considered, I concluded, Athens’s claim is as good and maybe better than any of the others. Eyewitnesses like Grandfather Murchison and Kindree Miller and scholars like Tolbert and the Hamburger University researchers lend credence to this version of the story. But how to account for the discrepancies? This bothered me until I remembered a particularly wacky passage in a letter that Clint wrote to Robert in which Clint tells a story later repeated by Tolbert. It seems that when the reporter for the New York Tribune asked Old Dave about his creation, Dave said the sandwich was his idea but the recipe for the side order of fried potatoes came from a friend in Paris. Dave meant Paris, Texas, of course, but the reporter got confused and—according to Clint’s letter—wrote that hamburgers were best served with “french fried potatoes.”

I can’t prove it, but I suspect that some of Tolbert’s tale about Uncle Fletch and his adventures in grilling is a prime example of Classic Clint in action. I can just see that impish smile and hear his soft chuckle. “French-fried potatoes”—that’s a good one!

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