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Arts & Culture

The Hamburger Wagon, serving up history on a bun

 Sherman Cocky Porter and the Hamburger Wagon
Sherman Cocky Porter and the Hamburger Wagon

Long before food trucks became trendy, a horse-drawn cart in the Dayton suburb of Miamisburg was a favorite spot for hungry residents and visitors. The horse is long gone, but the century-old recipe has been ranked one of the top 100 hamburgers in the United States by the book “Hamburger America.”

It was 4:00 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and people were lined up at the Hamburger Wagon to order freshly made hamburgers fried to crispy perfection, and served up on a bun with freshly sliced onion, pickle, salt and pepper.

It smelled delicious.

“That’s usually what attracts people,” Zach Ele said from inside the wagon. “ They’re deep fried in a cast iron skillet.” Zach and Jesse Harris are working in the tiny Hamburger Wagon today. Jesse is frying up the slider-sized patties in a twenty inch cast iron skillet, while Zach took the orders and prepped the buns.

 Hamburger Wagon has been a Miamisburg staple for 109 years.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Hamburger Wagon has been a Miamisburg staple for 109 years.

“I’ve been here about ten months now, since last November, and I love it,” Zach said between taking orders. “ We have plenty of regulars who know us by name and we know them by name.”

The Hamburger Wagon is cash only - no credit cards, QR codes, or apps. “We like to be the cheapest place in Miamisburg to get a nice meal, and it’s good food,” Zach said. “Everything here is a $1.50. We sell singles for a $1.50, doubles for $3 - those come with two patties - and we also sell chips and drinks for a $1.50 as well”

The Hamburger Wagon has been making the same burgers, the same way for 109 years. ”So it’s a secret recipe, even we don’t know it, and we have to sign a liability contract that we’re not allowed to tell anyone if we do figure it out.”

The Hamburger Wagon’s origin story began in 1913 during the great Miami Flood when 27-year old Miamisburg resident Sherman “Cocky” Porter volunteered to help provide food for flood victims and relief workers.

Hamburgers fried in a cast iron skillet with onion, pickle, salt and pepper.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Hamburgers fried in a cast iron skillet with onion, pickle, salt and pepper.

Porter’s burgers, made from a family favorite recipe, were so popular that after the flood waters receded and Porter returned to his job as a wheel maker at the Enterprise Buggy Company on Pearl Street, residents still asked for the "Porter Burger’s."

Porter made a wagon based on a milk delivery truck, which he parked on Market Square, and began selling burgers six days a week. According to an article on Dann Woellert’s, Food Etymologist blog, “Porter became famous for his booming cat call to potential customers: “Pickle in the middle and onion on top makes your belly go flippity-flop.”

The Porter family owned the wagon until 1968. The business has changed owners a few times and in the 1980s the wagon was rebuilt based on the original design by Mike Hunter of Miamisburg Woodcraft.

The current owner, Jack Sperry, bought the Hamburger Wagon in 2008, with the intent to preserve and enhance its legacy. It was Sperry who coined the slogan, “No stinkin’ cheeses and no sloppy sauces.”

In a recent CNN Travel article, The Hamburger Wagon was featured as one of six iconic places in the U.S. to get a classic burger.

Holly Mencke and her mother, Judi Harmon, have traveled back to Miamisburg from Washington State for a family reunion and a special side-trip to the Hamburger Wagon.

“My mom grew up here and we come here every year, get a hamburger,” Holly said. “It’s my grandpa’s birthday today. He passed away, but this was his favorite spot (and) we’re here for that.”

Grandpa Plumber, yep,” her mother Judi chimed in. “We lived here for years and then we moved out of state.” So, what is it about the hamburgers that keeps people coming back? Judi said “ It’s just a - I don’t know - just a homemade feel.”

Or, as one life-long Miamisburg resident in line puts it - It’s the word of Miamisburg.

Copyright 2022 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

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