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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 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, QVC 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 dollar fifty. We sell singles for a dollar fifty, doubles for three dollars - those come with two patties - and we also sell chips and drinks for a dollar fifty 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 1980’s 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 tells me. “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.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.