Celebrating Hamburg’s hamburger legend

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

The Hamburg Fair hamburger legend is a fun story and over the last couple of decades, has become an important chapter in our local lore, but it wasn’t always that way.

In fact, when the Town of Hamburg celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1962, five days of events were planned commemorating great events that had happened in the town, and local historians crafted an in-depth, 100-page book about the town’s history, including several pages about the Erie County Fair. There was no mention of the hamburger.

This article from The Buffalo Express offers fact contrary to the Hamburg hamburger legend. But is historical fact the whole point?

The first published mention of Hamburg’s tie to the hamburger came in 1970, 85 years after the invention was supposed to have happened.

Frank and Charles Menches, the food-vending brothers to whom all of Hamburg’s hamburger dreams are tied, were good at selling food, but even better at selling their story.

Over the decades, Frank Menches told a handful of different stories about how and where he invented the hamburger through the years, while also making claims to having invented other food items like ice cream cones and Cracker Jack.

One of the many versions of Frank Menches’ hamburger invention stories says he invented the burger at the 1885 Erie County Fair, which was held from Sept. 16-18, 1885, and the town’s name was the inspiration for the name of the sandwich. But five weeks earlier, a recipe for hamburgers appeared in The Buffalo Express, as reprinted from a Philadelphia restaurant.

Whether based in fact or not, the hamburger story is now a part of the town’s history.

Hamburg should still celebrate this great, mythological story in the same way that we celebrate Santa Claus. While we all know while there might be some small kernel of truth at the heart of the St. Nick legend, most of us accept that there isn’t a fat man climbing down our chimneys to leave presents for children.

The historical existence of Santa isn’t the point of Santa, and neither should it be for the hamburger.

Like Santa Claus, our hamburger story has inspired smiles and generated interest in our town. Just like Santa Claus represents so many of our good feelings and hopes for the world, our hamburger legend also represents our pride and good feelings about our town and gives us a wonderful, easy, unique way to share them.

Saying phooey on the hamburger is like saying phooey on Santa Claus. And remember, he’s always watching.

Hamburg’s claim to the hamburger is all sizzle, no steak

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The hamburger has been an American food staple for more than 100 years, and for that entire time, there have been people fighting over who “invented” the hamburger.

For the last 30 years, a campaign to claim Hamburg, N.Y., as the birthplace of the hamburger has been raging with enthusiasm, but few facts.

After a discussion with a “true Hamburg hamburger believer” several years ago, I began vigorously researching the claim that Ohio’s Menches Brothers served the first hamburger at their travelling sandwich stand at the Erie County Fair in 1885.

I wanted very badly to find facts to substantiate the myth, but alas, at every turn, years of research have pointed away from, not towards the Hamburg story.

That starts with the story itself.

As far as recorded history goes, the purported 1885 hamburger invention wasn’t written until John Kunzog’s 1970 book, “Tanbark and Tinsel,” which is subtitled “A Galaxy of Glittering Gems from the Dazzling Diadem of Circus History.”

Kunzog, of Jamestown, was 79 when he self-published the book through a vanity press. He tells the story of meeting Frank Menches 50 years earlier in 1920, and says that Menches told him that he invented the hamburger at the Erie County Fair.

The Menches Brothers, goes the story, ran out of pork for their sandwiches. A butcher would only offer some ground beef. They played around with it and created this amazing sandwich.

After a several-paragraph aside about the history of Hamburg, Germany, it was explained that the sounds of “tinkling cowbells” in nearby pastures reminded Menches of Germany.

That, along with the fact that the fair was commonly called “The Hamburg Fair,” was enough inspiration for Frank Menches to coin the phrase “hamburger” on the spot when someone asked what this new sandwich creation was called.

The story continues that they sent a boy to get some wallpaper and charcoal, and they wrote “hamburgers” in “gigantic letters” on the paper they tacked to the stand.

Aside from the fact that the story in the book is a 50-year-old reminiscence of an event that purportedly happened 35 years before that, it’s questionable because in 1938, Frank Menches told virtually the same story to the Akron Beacon Journal. Except the fair was Ohio’s Summit County Fair, not Hamburg’s Erie County Fair.

Frank Menches’ obituary, as it appeared on the front page of the Courier-Express in 1951.

In 1922, Menches told a different Akron newspaper reporter a different story about how he invented hamburgers, this one involving the meat squeezing out the ends of hot dogs. In the same article, Menches claimed to have invented the ice cream cone. At other times, he laid claim to having invented Cracker Jack.

When Frank Menches died in 1951, his obituary was carried in newspapers around the country, under the headline “Hamburger inventor dies.” Both United Press International and the Associated Press articles quote Menches as saying he invented the hamburger at the Summit County Fair.

The wire service stories were carried in both the Buffalo Evening News and the Buffalo Courier-Express without any mention of Hamburg, the Erie County Fair or any Western New York ties for Menches.

It wasn’t just those obituaries. If the hamburger was invented in Hamburg, no one in Hamburg or Western New York knew about it for more than 85 years.

When the Menches Brothers were mentioned in a 1937 Courier-Express article, Hamburg did not come up. In 1968, Courier-Express Food Editor Alice Partridge writes about the origins of the hamburger. She mentions the Menches, but not Hamburg.

For the Town of Hamburg’s 1962 sesquicentennial celebration, town historians crafted an in-depth, 100-page book about the town’s history, including several pages about the Erie County Fair. The word hamburger doesn’t appear in the book.

The story of Hamburg and the hamburger begins to gain traction around 1985, and the “centennial celebration” of the hamburger. In the time since then, the legend has taken on a life of its own.

In 1992, Hamburg Mayor Richard Hansen and Erie County Legislator Bert Villarini made pleas for residents to call an 800 number to let White Castle know they are misstating the birthplace of the hamburger.

The following year, Hamburg gained national attention when the town board voted against accepting a grant from Burger King to paint the town water tower as a hamburger.

2018 designs offered for the painting of Hamburg’s water tower in celebration of the hamburger.

For all the mooing that’s been done over the last 30 years, the most damaging arrows in the hide of Hamburg’s claim come from a pair of contemporary 1880s newspaper stories.

An 1883 New York Sun story about a lunch counter next to a cigar factory starts, “Give me six hamburgers, four chops, half a pound of sliced ham and five cents’ worth of pickles.”

It goes on to describe how the meat “with some bread makes for a fair meal.”

“Those flat, brown meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg steaks; the people call them hamburgers,” said the woman behind the counter, two years before the Menches brothers might have sold something similar at the Erie County Fair.

The final blow to the Hamburg legend seems decisive.

The Erie County Fair was held from Sept. 16 to 18 in 1885.

A hamburger recipe, as published in the Buffalo Express, five weeks before the claimed invention of the entree at the Erie County Fair.

Five weeks earlier, on Aug. 4, 1885, the Buffalo Express printed a recipe for Hamburg Steak, referring to the minced steak twice by the name  “hamburger.”

If Frank and Charlie Menches did serve hamburgers at the Erie County Fair in 1885, it’s just as likely that someone clipped the recipe for them from the Buffalo newspaper a few weeks earlier.

The Hamburg hamburger legend is a fun story, which is how most folks present it. The fact that the story has been told and repeated is a great part of our history– but for the record, the facts show that the great American hamburger was not “created” in Hamburg.

The Sounds of the Erie County Fair

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

We spent this week listening in to the sounds of the Erie County Fair.

I Got it!

The sound of an over-modulated PA system, and a guy sitting on a stool grumbling out the numbers of I GOT IT! is a tradition at Western New York lawn fetes, carnivals, and of course the Erie County Fair.

I Got It!

I Got It! was created when a change in state law banned bingo from firehalls.
Orrin “Peck” Catlin took matters into his own hands, building the first eight “I Got It!” units in his Blasdell garage for use at the Big Tree Volunteer fire company.

It was enough like the game of chance bingo to be attractive to the ladies who lined up to play bingo, but also added an element of skill– making it a legal amusement.

That was more than 50 years ago, and we’ve been laying down our quarters to toss those little red rubber balls ever since.

Yelling I GOT IT!… one of the great sounds of the Erie County Fair.


Ramblin’ Lou Schriver

Local country music legend Ramblin’ Lou Schriver played the Erie County Fair for an unbelievable 51 straight years.

He started pickin’ at barn dances, and started entertaining on the radio in 1947, playing live and recorded music as a disc jockey.

Milk for Health sponsored Ramblin Lou’s wholesome family radio shows through eight different decades. He even played on stage sitting on a specially painted old-fashioned milk can.

That can, and Ramblin’ Lou’s “Nudie Suit,”with his famous blue jacket emblazoned with an image of Niagara Falls crafted out of sequins by famous County & Western tailor Nudie Cohn, has been one of the most popular displays at the Fair’s Heritage and History Center.

Elvis, Gene Autry, Hank Williams– all regularly wore suits crafted by Nudie Cohn.

Ramblin’ Lou Schriver died at the age of 86 in 2015, but he’s still at the fair in spirit, as the Ramblin’ Lou family band continues to perform daily at the Avenue of the Flags stage.


 

1975.


The Human Block Head (and other oddities)

The oddities shows were once very much a part of the fair.

Melvin Burkhart nails it 1978

Melvin Burhardt had a few different acts over the decades. He was “the man with the rubber neck” and spent some time with the Ripley’s Oddotorium as “The Two Faced Man.”

He could contort his face so that half was Happy Melvin– with a raised eyebrow and a smile, and the other half was sad Melvin– with a scrunched eyebrow and a scowl.

The James E. Strates Shows have provided the midway attractions for the Erie County Fair since the 1920s. When Burkhardt joined Strates in 1956, his act was one of 18 sideshows.

1939 article talks about Strates’ side shows.

Strates’ 8 Foot Man. 1958.

He was best known to Erie County Fair goers as one of many “Human Block Heads” who came through the fair. Through the years, there were dozens of people who learned the Nail Head trick of hammering nails, or ramming knives, right into their faces.

It’s not comfortable– but it’s also not actual hammering. You can see the trick explained all over the internet.

There were many acts through the years named Alligator Man or Alligator Boy or Alligator girl– those were people who suffered from ichthyosis, which causes profound scaling of the skin. Tall people with Marfan syndrome. Hairy people with Hypertrichosis.

The human oddities are gone from the fair and most circuses and fairs, in part because of our changing sensibilities, but also because most of what we once considered odd or freakish is not so much anymore– especially when YouTube is filled with great, scientific explanations for the tricks and diseases which people put on display during these shows.

Strates showbill, 1959

While they are gone and never to return, the oddities and sideshows are a part of the history of the fair that shouldn’t be forgotten.

1971.


Demolition Derby & Joie Chitwood

The Demolition Derby has been a final-weekend-of-the-fair tradition for generations.

1967 ad.

Billed through the years as “The 100 car Demolition Derby,” “The 200 car Demolition Derby,” and then later as “The World’s Largest Demolition Derby,”  through the 50s and 60s, ads in the sports section of the Buffalo Evening News and Courier-Express goaded men on to join with headlines screaming, “WANTED MEN WITH IRON NERVES” and “WANTED… MEN WITH COURAGE TO DRIVE AUTOMOBILES HEAD ON AT 60 MPH CREATING A 120 MPH IMPACT.”

1953

For about as long as there’s been auto racing and auto thrill shows, motor mayhem has been a big part of The Erie County Fair. Joie Chitwood was the original stock car daredevil, and he and Erie County Fair staple for decades.

Joie Chitwood… The Demolition Derby… all kinds of automotive daring… a long standing part of the tradition at the Erie County Fair.


Chef Felix’s pizza truck

Chef Felix’s pizza truck was a fixture at the Erie County Fair for 34 years.

Felix Coniglio, in front of his truck at the Erie County Fair. Some of his pizza making equipment is on display inside the Fair’s Heritage & History Center at the Octagon Building.

Starting just after World War II, at a time when pizza was far more of an exotic treat than something you could find virtually everywhere. Felix Coniglio dished out whole pies and pizza by the slice as well.

And it was not only the smells of the pizzas cooked right in his truck that filled the midway, but it was his voice, too, coming from a speaker on the side of the truck.

Chef Felix Coniglio was selling pizza pies at the fair after he left the Navy following World War II up until he died in 1992.


Hear these and many other sounds of the Fair at the Erie County Fair’s Heritage & History Center.

Located inside the Fair’s 1885 Octagon Building, the Heritage & History Center opened during the 177th Fair to chronicle over 195 years of agriculture, food, competition and excitement that have come to symbolize the Erie County Fair to generations of Western New Yorkers. Exhibits were curated to showcase the inspiring traditions that have laid the foundation for the present-day Fair as well as reflect the progression of change in our society.

Read more from the Heritage & History Center from the man behind the museum, Marty Biniasz.

 

Sounds of the Fair: I Got It!

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week we’re celebrating the sounds of the Erie County Fair.

The sound of an over-modulated PA system, and a guy sitting on a stool grumbling out the numbers of I GOT IT! is a tradition at Western New York lawn fetes, carnivals, and of course the Erie County Fair.

I Got It!

I Got It! was created when a change in state law banned bingo from firehalls.
Orrin “Peck” Catlin took matters into his own hands, building the first eight “I Got It!” units in his Blasdell garage for use at the Big Tree Volunteer fire company.

It was enough like the game of chance bingo to be attractive to the ladies who lined up to play bingo, but also added an element of skill– making it a legal amusement.

That was more than 50 years ago, and we’ve been laying down our quarters to toss those little red rubber balls ever since.

Yelling I GOT IT!… one of the great sounds of the Erie County Fair.

Sounds of the Fair: Ramblin’ Lou Schriver

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week we’re celebrating the sounds of the Erie County Fair.

Local country music legend Ramblin’ Lou Schriver played the Erie County Fair for an unbelievable 51 straight years.

He started pickin’ at barn dances, and started entertaining on the radio in 1947, playing live and recorded music as a disc jockey.

Milk for Health sponsored Ramblin Lou’s wholesome family radio shows through eight different decades. He even played on stage sitting on a specially painted old-fashioned milk can.

That can, and Ramblin’ Lou’s “Nudie Suit,”with his famous blue jacket emblazoned with an image of Niagara Falls crafted out of sequins by famous County & Western tailor Nudie Cohn, has been one of the most popular displays at the Fair’s Heritage and History Center.

Elvis, Gene Autry, Hank Williams– all regularly wore suits crafted by Nudie Cohn.

Ramblin’ Lou Schriver died at the age of 86 in 2015, but he’s still at the fair in spirit, as the Ramblin’ Lou family band continues to perform daily at the Avenue of the Flags stage.

1975.

Sounds of the Fair: The Human Block Head (and other oddities)

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week we’re celebrating the sounds of The Erie County Fair.

The oddities shows were once very much a part of the fair.

Melvin Burkhart nails it 1978

Melvin Burhardt had a few different acts over the decades. He was “the man with the rubber neck” and spent some time with the Ripley’s Oddotorium as “The Two Faced Man.”

He could contort his face so that half was Happy Melvin– with a raised eyebrow and a smile, and the other half was sad Melvin– with a scrunched eyebrow and a scowl.

The James E. Strates Shows have provided the midway attractions for the Erie County Fair since the 1920s. When Burkhardt joined Strates in 1956, his act was one of 18 sideshows.

1939 article talks about Strates’ side shows.

Strates’ 8 Foot Man. 1958.

He was best known to Erie County Fair goers as one of many “Human Block Heads” who came through the fair. Through the years, there were dozens of people who learned the Nail Head trick of hammering nails, or ramming knives, right into their faces.

It’s not comfortable– but it’s also not actual hammering. You can see the trick explained all over the internet.

There were many acts through the years named Alligator Man or Alligator Boy or Alligator girl– those were people who suffered from ichthyosis, which causes profound scaling of the skin. Tall people with Marfan syndrome. Hairy people with Hypertrichosis.

The human oddities are gone from the fair and most circuses and fairs, in part because of our changing sensibilities, but also because most of what we once considered odd or freakish is not so much anymore– especially when YouTube is filled with great, scientific explanations for the tricks and diseases which people put on display during these shows.

Strates showbill, 1959

While they are gone and never to return, the oddities and sideshows are a part of the history of the fair that shouldn’t be forgotten.

1971.

Sounds of the Fair: Demolition Derby & Joie Chitwood

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week we’re celebrating the sounds of the Erie County Fair.

The Demolition Derby has been a final-weekend-of-the-fair tradition for generations.

1967 ad.

Billed through the years as “The 100 car Demolition Derby,” “The 200 car Demolition Derby,” and then later as “The World’s Largest Demolition Derby,”  through the 50s and 60s, ads in the sports section of the Buffalo Evening News and Courier-Express goaded men on to join with headlines screaming, “WANTED MEN WITH IRON NERVES” and “WANTED… MEN WITH COURAGE TO DRIVE AUTOMOBILES HEAD ON AT 60 MPH CREATING A 120 MPH IMPACT.”

1953

For about as long as there’s been auto racing and auto thrill shows, motor mayhem has been a big part of The Erie County Fair. Joie Chitwood was the original stock car daredevil, and he and Erie County Fair staple for decades.

Joie Chitwood… The Demolition Derby… all kinds of automotive daring… a long standing part of the tradition at the Erie County Fair.

The Sounds of the Fair: Chef Felix’s pizza truck

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week we’re celebrating the sounds of the Erie County Fair.

Chef Felix’s pizza truck was a fixture at the Erie County Fair for 34 years.

Felix Coniglio, in front of his truck at the Erie County Fair. Some of his pizza making equipment is on display inside the Fair’s Heritage & History Center at the Octagon Building.

Starting just after World War II, at a time when pizza was far more of an exotic treat than something you could find virtually everywhere. Felix Coniglio dished out whole pies and pizza by the slice as well.

And it was not only the smells of the pizzas cooked right in his truck that filled the midway, but it was his voice, too, coming from a speaker on the side of the truck.

Chef Felix Coniglio was selling pizza pies at the fair after he left the Navy following World War II up until he died in 1992.

Out of the Past: “The Skywheel” Double Ferris Wheel

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

It was one of the most popular rides of all time at the Erie County Fair, and it was a mainstay at James E. Strates shows all over the country.

The Skywheel was a signature attraction on the fair’s midway for more than 30 years starting in 1963.

The complex double Ferris wheel was built in North Tonawanda by the Allan Herschel Company.

“The ride featured two traditional Ferris wheels attached to opposite ends of a large boom that rotated in the air. While one wheel was being loaded, the second wheel would spin freely treating riders to a panoramic view of the entire fairgrounds and the skyline of downtown Buffalo in the distance,” says Fair historian Marty Biniasz.

“The climax of the Sky Wheel ride occurred when the entire boom would rotate, creating a memorable thill for up to 32 adults or 48 children in one of its 16 seats. At night, the ride was covered in dazzling green and blue neon.”

After being taken off the midway in 1993, The Skywheel returned to Kiddieland for three years in the late 1990s.

In 2016, one of the seats from the retired ride returned to the fairgrounds as an interactive part of the Fair Heritage & History Center in the Octagon Building. Thousands of fairgoers have had their photo taken in the seat, reliving memories of fairs gone by.

Out of the Past: Hands-on ingenuity at the Fair then & now

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

The hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Hamburg Fairgrounds over the next couple of weeks have all kinds of favorite reasons for coming to the fair. From some, it might be about food, others the rides, maybe even shopping or people watching.

At the fair, 1908

Had you asked the question 110 years ago, for nearly every visitor, it was about celebrating agriculture and learning more how to get more out your crops and livestock.

In 1908, Machinery Hall featured the latest farm implements included steam-powered tractors and the Niagara Junior thresher built by Buffalo Pitts Company.

“Fairs have acted as public stages for innovation since their inception,” said CEO & Fair Manager Jessica Underberg. “Whether it was new steam powered farm implements in the 1870s, automobiles in the 1910s or the introduction of television in the late 1940s, the Erie County Fair allowed Western New Yorkers to experience new technology up-close and in person.”

The 179th Erie County Fair refocuses on that idea with “I-Hub at the Fair” inside the Fair’s Showplace Building. The display will focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) based businesses and education through daily demonstrations, interactive displays and hands-on activities.    

And the “Jim’s French Fries” stand, a real world outgrowth of the I-Hub comes with the world’s first, practical use “ketchup dispensing robot,” built by Hamburg’s Staub Precision Machine.

 “The I-Hub represents the future of our industry. In an ever increasing virtual world, Fairs continue to be a place where the community experiences life first hand,” said Fair Marketing Manager Marty Biniasz. “From the raising of champion livestock to inventions being created in our backyards, fairs celebrate and let people interact with the best of human accomplishments.”