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Column: When hamburgers found a place in Worthington

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Jan. 27, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — One of these columns lately was discussing anniversaries. I think we are just a month beyond one of those milestone anniversaries: the first hamburger. The first hamburger sandwiches were sold at Worthington 80 years and one month ago.

Is this correct?

It is tough to pin down when and how hamburgers began. You know, Lena von Beebee might have fried ground beef in her castle kitchen and slipped patties inside fresh buns in March 1508. Who knows?

There are as many stories telling of the first hamburger as there are hamburgers sold by McDonald’s. The story I like best is Charlie Nagreen’s story from 1885. Charlie, a boy of 15 years, went to the Outagamie County Fair in Wisconsin with a makeshift food stand drawn by an ox. Charlie was selling meatballs, made the way his mother taught him.

It turns out, meatballs are hard to eat on a fairgrounds — you bite into a meatball and part of it often will fall to the ground. Charlie Nagreen got an idea to press ma’s meatballs flat and to slip the patties between slices of bread.

People in Outagamie County came to call him Hamburger Charlie. The reason I like Charlie’s story of the invention of the hamburger is because he wrote a poem. Charlie stood by his food stand, sometimes playing a mouth organ and a guitar at the same time. Then he would sing his rhyme:

“Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers hot;

“Onions in the middle, pickle on top.

“Makes your lips go flippity flop.”

Isn’t that great?

At Worthington, old menus suggest there were restaurants from an early time offering hamburgers the way Charlie Nagreen made them, with beef patties and bread.

It was 1926, however — 80 years and a month ago — that the first patties on a white bun went on sale. The vendor, the hamburger man, was Harry Hogan.

Harry was the son of a railroad man. The Hogans moved to Worthington in 1905. Young Harry went off to service for World War I in 1918. When he returned, he opened a tire and battery shop at the corner of Third Avenue and Ninth Street in a building still standing, opposite the old National Guard Armory. Cars were becoming fairly common by that time — 1920, 1921. A lot of tires were sold and repaired, a lot of batteries were needed.

There was a claim Harry liked to make. He told Bob Cashel about it 35 years ago when Bob went to interview Harry one August afternoon.

Harry had expanded his tire and battery repair into a full-blown auto agency. Harry believed he was the first car salesman (in these parts, at least) who took used cars as trade-ins on new cars. He was selling new cars and used cars. That hadn’t been done before.

It was 1926. Oh, the Citizens National Bank had gone under. Times were tough, especially on the farms. People didn’t need cars, and cars weren’t selling. Harry had spotted a six-stool lunch wagon, a real wagon on wheels. He bought it, pulled it to 10th Street and parked it next to the Firestone lot. He was across the street from the Grand Theater, and he was across the street from Dolch’s Bakery.

Harry had seen hamburger sandwiches in his travels — hamburger patties on buns. Dolch agreed to make buns to Harry’s order. People at Worthington proved to be like people in other places. They loved a fried beef patty on a bun — with ketchup, with mustard, with pickle, with onion. Everyone called them hamburger sandwiches. “Let’s go to Harry’s and get a hamburger sandwich.” Almost no one said just “hamburger.”

Harry knew there was competition. Restaurants were putting beef patties on bread. It was Dolch’s bun that made the sandwich.

Harry called his wagon the Red Hot Covered Wagon. It was hot inside but — another thing — Harry would wrap a burger in a paper napkin and you could eat it outside where it was cooler.

Harry Hogan’s hamburgers were 10 cents. There was a selection of pies, one dime a slice. There was coffee, five cents a mug.

It wasn’t long before Harry replaced the six-stool wagon with a 12-stool wagon. Hamburgers had found a place at Worthington.