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