Tulsa: Birthplace of the Hamburger

Today I thought I’d do something a little different.  I was recently made aware of an article written back in 1995 for the Oklahoma Today magazine about the origins of the hamburger.  Considering the subject matter and Tulsa’s place in history, I thought you all might be interested.  I was unable to include the photographs that were in the original article, so I substituted a few of my own.  Enjoy!

Welcome To Hamburger Heaven by Michael Wallis

High noon in the heart of the Osage. Just outside Teresa’s, a popular cafe in the town of Wynona, a half-dozen cowboys are hankering for a showdown. Clad in spurred boots, jeans, and chaps coated with dust, they hitch their cow ponies to a catalupa tree out back and tromp through the front door, touching the brims of their sweat-stained hats in a salute of respect to a lady with a fancy hairdo at the cash register. A stainless steel salad bar doesn’t even rate a passing glance.

These cowboys, like a pack of prairie wolves on the hunt, head straight for the back room, where a droning television is overpowered by juke box serenades. The cowpokes break into approving grins when a waitress bearing mugs of hot coffee and clean ashtrays makes an appearance at their table. No need to pass out menus or hear about the special of the day. These men know what they want: hamburgers all around, and keep the coffee coming. None too soon, the orders arrive. Cigarettes are ground out; styrofoam cups used as miniature spittoons set aside. In unison the cowboys gently unwrap their burgers and
peek beneath the soft buns at the slabs of hot meat. The aroma of sizzling ground beef and fried onions is too much to bear. Moving faster than small-town gossip. every man seizes a burger and chomps down.

Soon paper napkins for sopping burger juice from chins are piled high enough to shade a Hereford. Nobody has room let for ice cream or a dish of banana pudding. One cowboy, a look of pure contentment on his weathered face, comes up for air. He shoves his chair away from the table, wipes yet another napkin across his mouth, and pushes back his hat. “We’ve been chasin’ cattle since sunup, and sometimes those critters make me as weary as a tomcat walkin’ in mud.” he drawls for all to hear while he works a toothpick between his molars. “But you know there still ain’t nothin’ better on God’s green earth than a
chopped cow sandwich.”

Other states may gloat about their burger joints, but Oklahoma is a mecca for those who love the almighty hamburger. From the tiny town of Meers, home of the legendary Meersburger, to sprawling Oklahoma City and beyond, the state claims scores of hamburger palaces—some of them world-class, a few heaven sent.

Home of the World Famous Meers Burger
Meers Store & Restaurant, outside of Lawton, OK

A traveler can start his pilgrimage most anywhere in the Sooner State: Johnnie’s Grill in El Reno, Dan’s Ol’ Time Diner in Oklahoma City, the Flamingo Lounge in Enid, Ron’s in Tulsa, Coleman’s in Okmulgee. No matter where the quest begins, at some point one must head for the Osage Hills and seek out Teresa’s.

The culinary domain of Teresa Denney sits at the southern edge of Wynona (pop. 531 ) on S.H. 99. A Nebraska native, Teresa and her family followed oil to Oklahoma in 1955. Two decades later, she opened the doors to her cafe after her husband was injured while on a pipeline job. At the time, the native stone building that seated fifty was called “Stella’s,” but Teresa quickly put her own name on the place. “We went straight to work cooking and have never slowed down. During busy times it takes four or five of us to keep the place running, and when there’s a rodeo and it really gets hectic, 1 can always turn to my friends for their help. Fortunately, I started in restaurants when I was thirteen-year-old girl, so I’m well accustomed to hard work and turning out good food.”

The training of a lifetime shows. “We use only fresh ground beef, and every bit of it is from the Osage,” explains Teresa. “I cook each and every hamburger to order—just the way folks want them. If they ask for onions cooked in or if they like their burger rare, then that’s exactly what they get.” Her establishment is known for two burgers in particular. a Jalapeno Burger and a one-pound cheeseburger smothered in chili known as the Osage Monster, the latter named by one of Teresa’s sons to honor the state’s largest county. Most days, including the Sabbath, Teresa can be found at the helm of her snug kitchen grilling them herself. “I truly believe the secret to our success at cooking great burgers is our grill,” explains Teresa as she oversees a small army of hissing patties. “It’s a real old grill—must go back to at least the 1940s. My husband got it out of a place at Hominy and brought it to me. The thing is, that old steel grill is seasoned, and it’s never ever let me down.”

Recorded history varies as to who deserves credit for putting that first patty of cooked beef on a bun. Hamburger authorities tend to agree that the modern burger patty is a direct descendant of what is now called steak tartare, a dish inspired by thirteenth-century Tartars, who shredded their raw meat with a dull knife. By the eighteenth century, the fame of tartar steak had spread from Russia to other points in Europe, including the seaport of Hamburg, where German gourmets were the first to add raw egg, then salt, pepper, and diced onion. Their greatest contribution: they occasionally added fire beneath the patties of meat.

Hamburger Inn in Ardmore, OK

When German immigrants began pouring into the United States after 1830, they brought with them their favorite foods: frankfurters, beer, pretzels, dill pickles, potato salad, rye bread, and, of course, the succulent beefsteak known as hamburger, or, “steak cooked in the Hamburg style.” An 1834 menu from New York’s acclaimed Delmonico’s Restaurant offers hamburger steak for only a dime, six cents more than the price of a beefsteak or pork chops. Even though “Hamburg steak”—broiled mounds of ground beef eaten with fork and knife—started showing up in restaurants stretching from New York City to Walla Walla, Washington, the hamburger sandwich was yet to be devised.

Legend has it that happened about 1900, when a former butcher named Louis Lassen made what is considered to be the first burger sandwich. Lassen operated a lunch counter called Louis’ Lunch, a Yale University haunt immortalized by the”Whiffenpoof Song,” as in “From the tables down at Morrio’s/Where the ghost of Louis dwells…” When one of Lassen’s customers who was pressed for time dashed in demanding a quick meal, the ingenious cook responded by slapping a broiled ground meat patty made from steak trimmings between two slices of toasted white bread. If this is true, not only did Lassen fashion the first hamburger sandwich, but the argument might also be made that his bread and patty creation was the prototype for fast-food service. Diligent burger buffs point out, however, that Louis’ Lunch always used toasted bread and not a bun (a component as essential to a hamburger as crust is to pecan pie) and broiled rather than grilled its beef patties. (Purists never broil their meat; in fact, they insist charburgers and hamburgers are not even the same animal.)

Through the years, others have asserted that they were the proper owner of the coveted title of hamburger inventor. Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, boasted that he gave birth to the hamburger in 1885 at the age of fifteen and that he peddled his creations from his ox-drawn concession stand at the county fair. “Hamburger” Charlie, as he was called, may have fried up beef patties in butter, but instead of a bun, he too placed the meat between bread slices just like the cooks at Louis’ Lunch. Frank Menches of Akron, Ohio, claimed that he cooked the first burger—supposedly one day when his concession ran out of pork sausage. Menches’s creation was unveiled at a county fair in 1892, but it too was served on sliced bread and not on a bun. Twelve years later, Menches and his brother introduced the first ice cream cone at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where their creation was joined by the first known servings of ice tea, fruit icicles (forerunner of popsicles), hot dogs on rolls, and, some believe, the first hamburger. Credit for the burger entry, however, belonged to Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis, a Baja Oklahoman and short order cook who had been making ground beef sandwiches in an Athens, Texas, drugstore since the 1890s. Old Dave supposedly showed up at the St. Louis fair to hawk his trademark sandwich to fairgoers, with one minor difference: instead of his usual bread slices, he used buns—the better to contain fried patties slathered with mustard and topped with sliced Bermuda onion.

Weber’s in Tulsa, OK

The offspring of Oscar Weber Bilby are willing to concede that hamburger sandwiches made with bread may predate the burger made famous by Bilby in Tulsa, but they insist it was Grandpa Oscar who thought to add the bun—long before any Texan had the chance. The Bilbys point out that Grandpa Oscar and his wife, Fanny, moved to Indian Territory from Missouri in the 1880s. The couple ferried the Arkansas River in a covered wagon and settled near the community of Bowden, just a few miles north of Sapulpa, erecting a home on 640 acres of farmland purchased for just thirty cents an acre. There Oscar and Fanny raised a family, tended an ample garden, and ran a few cattle and hogs. Well over a century later, Harold Bilby can name the precise month and year that his grandfather made hamburger history.

The story has been passed down through the generations like family Bible. “Grandpa himself told me that it was in June of 1891 when he took up a chunk of iron and made himself a big of grill,” explains Harold. “Then the next month on the Fourth of July he built a hickory wood fire underneath that grill, and when those coals were glowing hot, he took some ground Angus meat and fired up a big batch of hamburgers. When they were cooked all good and juicy, he put them on my Grandma Fanny’s homemade yeast buns—the best buns in all the world, made from her own secret recipe. He served those burgers on buns to neighbors and friends under a grove of pecan trees, along with buckets of fresh ice cream and his hand-mixed root beer that had been aged for months in birch bark barrels in the cellar. Folks couldn’t believe how good it all tasted. They couldn’t get enough, so Grandpa hosted another big feed. He did that every Fourth of July, and sometimes as many as a 125 people showed up.”

Simple math supports Harold Bilby’s contention that if his Grandpa served burgers on Grandma Fanny’s buns in 1891, then the Bilbys eclipsed the St. Louis World’s Fair vendors by at least thirteen years. That would make Oklahoma the cradle of the hamburger. “There’s not even the trace of a doubt in my mind,” says Harold.”My grandpa invented the hamburger on a bun right here in what became Oklahoma, and if anybody wants to say different, then let them prove otherwise.”

Nighttime neon at Weber’s in Tulsa

It took until 1933, however, for Oscar and his son Leo to open the family’s first burger stand in Tulsa. They dubbed it Weber’s Superior Root Beer Stand. “Dad told me they named it Weber’s from Grandpa’s middle name, and they used the word ‘Superior’ because, as Grandpa used to tell us, ‘Our root beer made from fourteen natural root juices is a superior product,’ ” says Harold, who started washing out mugs just a few years after his grandfather and father built the black and orange wooden shack at 38th and Peoria that became a Tulsa landmark.

To ensure the quality of their hamburgers would never waver, the Bilbys installed Oscar’s old thirty-six-inch by twenty-four-inch grill and converted it to natural gas. For decades they fried hamburgers from morning to night for customers that included Roy Clark and Jerry Lee Lewis. When the original stand was torn down in 1987 to make room for a shopping center, the family packed up its big neon sign, and, of course, the trusty grill and moved into a cozy new building two hundred feet away. The last person to order a burger before the wrecking ball swung into action was Kimble Rowe, a retired salesman. Back in 1933, at age thirteen, he had also been the first customer served at the original Weber’s. “I just like the taste of their hamburgers,” says Rowe. “You don’t get all that other junk and additives in the meat like you get at most other places nowadays.”

Oscar and his son Leo are long gone, but their legacy lives. Two of Harold’s four children—sons Rick and Mike—manage the place, with assistance from veteran employees like Michael Ward, who started tending the burger grill in 1985. The boys turn out as many as four hundred prize-winning hamburgers each day, all of them cooked on Grandpa Oscar’s treasured steel grill. “We tell our customers that this old grill has fried so many burgers that the grease has soaked all the way through,” says Harold Bilby. “But then our customers come back and say they’ve never had a tastier burger or a better mug of root beer. To me it’s better than eating filet mignon and sipping fine wine. When you drink a frosted mug of our natural root beer and eat one of our old-fashioned burgers, you’re tasting history, pure history.”

Vintage menu on the walls inside Weber’s in Tulsa

This article ran in the May 1995 edition of Oklahoma Today.  Written by Michael Wallis with help from: Scott Fitzgerald, Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, office manager Linda Adams, and friends Allen “Storm” Strider and Lydia Wykoff.  The original article also featured photographs by Tom Luker.

Reprinted with permission from Oklahoma Today and the author.  Original article here: http://digital.library.okstate.edu/oktoday/1990s/1995/oktdv45n2.pdf

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