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History of the hamburger

THE HENDERSON COUNTY HAMBURGER

by Frank X. Tolbert
as written in Tolbert’s Texas

It took me years of sweatneck research before I finally determined, at least in mine and in some other Texas historian’s estimation, that Fletcher Davis (1864-1941), also known as “Old Dave” of Athens, in Henderson County, Texas, invented the hamburger sandwich.

People who helped me most in my research were Clint Murchison, Jr., of Dallas and Kindree Miller, Sr., a fifth-generation potter in Athens.  Fletcher Davis was Mr. Miller’s uncle.

A reporter for the New York Tribune wrote from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair of a new sandwich called a hamburger, “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike.”  By “pike” he meant the World’s Fair midway.

Clint Murchison, Jr., had sent me a big picture of the 1904 World’s Fair midway with “Old Dave’s Hamburger Stand” marked apparently by Clint’s grandfather, John Murchison, an Athens banker.

About ten years ago, Clint told me that his grandfather said that the as yet unnamed sandwich, the one now called hamburger, was served at an Athens lunch counter in the late 1880s.

Grandfather Murchison had vivid memories of the 1880s sandwich but recalled the name of the innovator only as “Old Dave.”

Grandfather Murchison said the hamburger pioneer’s little café was next to the J. J. Powers drugstore (later Stirman’s Drug) on the north side of the Henderson County courthouse square.

The sandwich was described as the classic greasy hamburger except that it was served with just-out-of-the-oven slices of home-baked bread rather than on a round bun. 

Banker Murchison had traveled over much of the United States in the late 1880s and 1890s.  He said he never saw another sandwich similar to Old Dave’s.  He said Athens folks were so intrigued that they raised a sum of money to send the sandwich virtuoso to the World’s Fair.

Now “Hamburger University,” the McDonald’s food chain research organization, has apparently worked hard on the history of the chain’s principal product.  And Hamburger University’s conclusion is that an anonymous food vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was the first to introduce the sandwich to the public and was probably the innovator.

My problem was with the lack of memory about Old Dave’s full name, in the case of Grandfather Murchison, and the sloppy reporting done by the 1904 New York Tribune writer who apparently just wanted to express his relish for the sandwich and to hell with the guy who made it.

I thought that there might be something about Old Dave being sent by the citizenry to the fair in 1904 editions of the Athens Review, which in 1904 was a weekly.  Dick Dwelle, boss of the Review, turned over his 1904 files to me for about a week.

Old Dave’s trip to St. Louis wasn’t reported in 1904 in the Review.  But then Kindree Miller heard of my quest through one of his friends, Albert Rierson.  Athens had been famous for pottery since the 1860s, and Miller pottery works has been in Athens for a century.  I met Kindree Miller in his office at the pottery works.  And he told me:                     

“Old Dave was Fletcher Davis, by trade a potter.  He came here from Webster Groves, Missouri, near St. Louis.  He wrote to my father for a job and he got off the train somewhere between Dallas and Tyler and he walked all the way, more than fifty miles, from the railhead to Athens.  For some reason people here called him Old Dave at the start although he was still in his twenties when he got here in the 1880s.  We called him Uncle Fletch after he was married to my mother’s sister, Recinda (Aunt Ciddy) Allison.

“Uncle Fletch was a tall, athletic fellow.  He was a turner in our pottery works but he would volunteer for jobs on the side.  No one else wanted to tear down the old Henderson County jail.  Uncle Fletch did it almost alone.  When we got our first paved road in the country here, from Athens to Murchison, volunteers were asked to paint the middle stripe in that ten-mile road.  Uncle Fletch was the only volunteer.  He put cotton-picking pads on his knees and painted that center stripe.  He played baseball on Athens town teams and then worked as an umpire when he got a lot of age on him.

“He was a natural and imaginative cook.  He usually did the cooking at pottery picnics.  The pottery business got slow in the late 1800s.  And Uncle Fletch opened that little lunch counter next to the drugstore.

“I remember eating what was later called a hamburger at Uncle Fletch’s café before I event started in the first grade.

“I never heard that story that the townspeople got up a pot to send him to the 1904 fair.  It could have happened.  But I think they just went up there on their own.

“When I was ten years old I went with my parents to the 1904 fair and to visit with our relatives.  Uncle Fletch and Aunt Ciddy had rented a large house in Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb.  We stayed with them for maybe two weeks and we went to the fair almost every day and lived on hamburgers when we were there.  Uncle Fletch had a good location, across the midway from a show featuring famous Indian warriors who had been talked into going on exhibit, including the old apache, Geronimo.”

Kindree said the sandwich was named during the fair.  And both he and Grandpa Murchison said that Fletcher Davis was “interviewed by a fancy dan reporter for the New York Tribune who also asked about the fried potatoes served with thick tomato sauce.”  Mr. Davis told the reporter that the sandwich was his idea but he learned to cook the potatoes that way from a friend who lived in Paris, Texas.

Clint Murchison, Jr., quoted his grandfather as saying: “Apparently the 1904 reporter thought Old Dave said Paris, France, in referring to the way the potatoes were cooked.  For the New York Tribune story on the hamburger said the sandwich was served with french fried potatoes.”

James A. Cockrell, a longtime editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, thinks that scornful persons of German descent in St. Louis named Fletcher Davis’ sandwich.  Mr. Cockrell wrote me:

“I read the McDonald’s hamburger researchers’ story that the hamburger sandwich was innovated by an unknown food vendor at the 1904 fair.  And it annoyed me that the New York Tribune reporter neglected to give the name of the innovator.  What kind of a newspaperman was that guy?

“There are many people of German descent in St. Louis.  I think these St. Louis Germans, or maybe only one of them, can be blamed for misnaming the magnificent Texas culinary creation - which deserves more a precise and flattering title.

“In St. Louis I’ve heard from person, whose parents or grandparents came from the southern regions of Germany, say that northern Germans in the city of Hamburg were much given to eating ground meat, even in the distant past.  Other Germans disapproved of the Hamburg ground meat freaks, especially the Hamburg types who liked raw ground meat.  So the St. Louis Germans may have named the sandwich hamburger as a derisive gesture toward the barbaric, ground-meat gobblers in the city of Hamburg.  It is certain that the people of Hamburg never got around to making a ground-meat sandwich.  If they did it never caught on over there.”

In 1974 the New York Times ran a story in which one Kenneth Lassen claimed that his grandfather Louis Lassen “invented” the hamburger sandwich in 1900 in a small café in New Haven, Connecticut.  And Kenneth Lassen complained that “the birthplace of the American hamburger, a tiny restaurant called Louis Lunch, was in danger of being replaced by a twelve-story medical complex. . .”

The New York Times story admitted that “a serious challenge to the title is a theory supported by the McDonald’s Corporation, the nationwide hamburger chain.  McDonald’s historians have researched the problem and claim the inventor was an unknown food vendor at the St. Louis Fair in 1904.”

After this New York Times story was published I got a letter from a New Haven native, Neil E. Shay, now of Dallas.  He wrote:

“A pox on the New York Times for bulldozing honest facts out of the way.  Let me state that Looie (Louis Lassen) sold one fine steak sandwich but it was never a hamburger. “Up until I left the City of the Elms and New Ideas, New Haven, circa 1933, Louis Lassen was still serving this steak sandwich - never a hamburger.  It was probably beef off the rump, cut in thin slices.  And it was really something to take to bed with you around midnight after a social event.”

When he heard about the New Haven Preservation Trust having plans to declare “the dimly lit, twelve-by-eighteen, Louis Lunch building a historic landmark,” Clint Murchison, Jr., told me:

“Let’s face it: if we let the Yankees get away with claiming the invention of the hamburger sandwich they’ll be going after chili con carne next.  The New Haven claim as the birthplace of the American hamburger is a phony one, and the quicker they tear down that old building and raise the medical complex the better.”

Mr. Murchison is now planning a historic plaque at either Fletcher Davis’ grave in the Athens cemetery or at 115 Tyler Street on the Henderson County courthouse square where the first ground beef was put between two slices of bread, garnished with, according to Grandpa Murchison, ground mustard mixed with mayonnaise, a big slice of Bermuda onion, and sliced cucumber pickles.

“When Uncle Fletch and Aunt Ciddy returned from staying the duration at the World’s Fair there were several cafes making the new sandwich.  So Uncle Fletch went back to firing pots in our pottery.  He would cook hamburgers at picnics but he never reopened his little hamburger joint on the north side of the courthouse square,” said Kindree Miller.  “My uncle was proud of making the first hamburger sandwich but he never thought of commercializing on it.”

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