Hamburger WhoDunIt Part V: CSI: Hamburg(er), N.Y.

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(The fifth part in a series of seven)

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk..”

– Henry David Thoreau

And then there was one. Charles and Frank Menches were born in Canton, Ohio. Their father, Jacob Menches, an engineer in Prussia, immigrated to America and became a grocer in Canton. Their mother, Charlotte Hahn Menches, was originally from France. As young men, both boys were quite athletic. Charles as a well-regarded gymnast who travelled with a popular circus as a trapeze artist and high wire walker before he turned twenty.1 Frank, six years younger than Charles, was an award-winning bicycle racer.2,3

While the brothers’ lives contain several amazing stories, our focus here is on only one: Their role as (potentially) the first to sell a hamburg sandwich. How this story became known is itself a story. The brothers’ claim was widely known (the headline of Frank’s 1951 obituary reads “‘Inventor’ of Hamburger Dies.”4 The real story, however, lay hidden for half a century and was published decades after the brothers had passed away.

Born in Jamestown, New York, John C. Kunzog worked in the newspaper business his entire career. During his lifetime, he was regarded as an expert on circus history in America. In 1962, he published his first book, The One Horse Show—The Life and Times of Dan Rice, Circus Jester and Philanthropist. Kunzog’s interest in Dan Rice developed while operating a weekly community newspaper in Hudson, Ohio. His salesman, “an elderly man by the name of William M. (Pop) Robinson” entertained the twenty-eight-year-old Kunzog with stories of his circus tour with Dan Rice in 1864. 5

That wasn’t the only story Pop told Kunzog. In 1970, Kunzog published his second book, Tanbark and Tinsel – A Galaxy of Glittering Gems from the Dazzling Diadem of Circus History. There, on page 155, Kunzog mentions, during his tenure in Hudson, “I employed as salesman an elderly man who had a circus background, and when he learned I had written publicity for circuses, he regaled me with stories of the past.” No doubt that “elderly man” was Pop, and Pop’s stories included that of Frank and Charles Menches.

By then, the Menches brothers were nearing retirement and had reduced their once thriving concession business to focus on other business ventures. They had recently sold the assets of their Premium Candy, Corn, and Ice Cream company. This company produced, among other things, Gee Whiz caramel corn (a contemporary rival of the Crackerjack brand), and the ubiquitous Waffle Cone.6 In 1917, they used the proceeds from that sale to build what would eventually become the Liberty Theater, which they remodeled handsomely in 1921.7

In his 1970 book, Kunzog says he met with Frank Menches in the early 1920s. This is believable because contemporary newspaper accounts confirm Kunzog published the Hudson newspaper at least from 1920 through 1923.8 The level of detail relayed in Tanbark and Tinsel has made this the definitive Menches Brothers hamburger origin story. It also provides many opportunities to corroborate – or refute – the report.

Let’s start with the obvious. This is the only hamburger origin story that does not have the subject of the story championing the cause to a local reporter. What’s more, Kunzog, unlike the other newspaper writers, was considered by his peers to be a very credible source in this subject area. That being said, as we’ll soon discover, his retelling of Frank Menches hamburger origin story contains some noticeable errors.

I’ll summarize Kunzog by focusing on the salient facts.

First, the set-up: The event occurred at the Erie County (N.Y.) Agricultural Society’s Annual Fair (a.k.a. “Hamburg Fair”) in Hamburg, N.Y. when Frank was 20 years old. At that time, the women’s auxiliary, a particularly vocal group, had asked the society to eliminate wood and coal fueled ovens used by food vendors. It seems the year earlier a renegade ember had landed on a woman’s dress causing it to catch fire. In addition to this concern, the Society had built a new wooden grandstand. The commissioners decided to allow only gas-powered stoves near the grandstand. The Menches Brothers used gas-powered stoves.

And now, the actual day of the event: The brothers run out of pork for their sandwiches. Frank approaches “Andrew Klein,” a local butcher. Mr. Klein declines to provide Frank with pork. The weather is too hot and humid, so it doesn’t make sense to slaughter an entire pig for the few pounds of meat Frank wanted. Instead, Klein gives Frank a few pounds of ground beef. Not quite sure, the brothers experimented with forming this meat into patties. They added various ingredients to help the cooking process and improve the flavor.

It was a hit! Kunzog has a satisfied customer approach Frank and ask, “Gutte Schmeck! Vas ist?” (“Good tasting. What is it?”)  To which, Frank is said to have replied “Hamburger, das allerbeste!” (“the very best!”).

Kunzog included far more details, but the ones listed here are the most important. Let’s go back to the Wayback Machine (i.e., old newspaper archives) and how Kunzog’s account scores on the old fact-checking chart.

First, Frank Menches turned twenty on July 16, 1885. The Erie County Fair was held from September 15th through September 18th that year. Frank was indeed twenty by the time of the Fair. Score one for Kunzog.

Or not.

Remember, Kunzog is retelling Frank’s story half a century after Frank originally told it to him. And Frank told it to him 35 years after the event occurred. So, “20 years old” may be real or it may be a convenient rounding by either Frank or Kunzog. Throwing suspicion on the age is Kunzog’s incorrect claim that Charles was sixteen years younger than Frank. In fact, Frank was six years younger than Charles. This is not a mistake Frank would make. It’s more likely something got transposed in Kunzog’s notes. Could other items have been incorrectly noted?

That’s why the other corroborating facts are important. It would be nice if we had a complete list of approved vendors for the 1885 Erie County Fair from a contemporary source. The only such available source merely contains a partial list of vendors.9 In reviewing the Menches brothers’ story one hundred years later, Hamburg Town Historian James Swinnich incorrectly assumed this was a complete list of licensees.10 We know it’s a partial list because newspaper reports of the time reference a variety of food vendors not included on this list (e.g., “Ex-side Justice Read, of the county court, presides over a lemonade and pop stand with dignity and grace” and “The pop and peanut venders are in their glory”11 as well as “The grounds are thickly dotted with booths where the concoctors of cream candy, ham sandwiches, and diluted lemon juice hold sway”12).

Alternatively, it would be nice if we had some record of the whereabouts of the Menches brothers from September 15-18, 1885. We don’t. Since we know they started their concession business a year earlier, it’s possible they could have been at the 1885 Stark County Fair in their hometown of Canton, Ohio. But that occurred from September 28th through October 2nd, giving the brothers plenty of time to travel back and forth. The Akron (Ohio) Fair was held after the Stark County Fair, so that wouldn’t pose a conflict, either.

Furthermore, interviews with the Menches family indicate Charles and Frank were introduced to the Erie County (N.Y.) Fair through their contacts in Jamestown and Dunkirk. The 1885 Chautauqua County Fair (Jamestown) occurred from September 1-4 and the 1885 Northern Chautauqua Fair (Dunkirk-Fredonia) was held from September 22-26. For that matter, the Cattaraugus County Fair (Olean) was from September 7-10. It would therefore make sense for the Menches brothers to have hit all Western New York fairs in the sequence they were held before returning to their home region and participating in that county fair circuit.

All the above does is prove there’s not obvious conflict that would keep Charles and Frank out of the Hamburg Fair in 1885. There are other facts that help pinpoint 1885 as the target year. First, the new grandstand was completed just before the opening of the 1884 Erie County Fair.13 Still, final completion did not occur until a month or more after the fair.14 It therefore is reasonable to consider the grandstand still “new” in 1885.

What about “Andrew Klein” The only mention of a butcher named “Andrew Klein” told of his opening a butcher shop at 230 Sherman Street in the city of Buffalo.15 I can think of two reasons why Frank did not go to this Andrew Klein. First, it was quite a distance to travel to the City of Buffalo from Hamburg. Second, this Andrew Klein didn’t open his shop until 1891.

Does this knock out the Menches brothers? Nope. It turns out, as reported (very quickly it turns out) by others,16 Kunzog (or Frank) wrote “Klein” but meant “Stein.” Andrew Stein established his meat market in the Village of Hamburg in 186617 and didn’t sell it until 1889.18 Furthermore, Stein was extremely well connected. He served as Chief of Police at the Erie County Fair19 and as Supervisor of the Town of Hamburg.20 Andrew Stein is certainly someone the young Menches boys would seek out if they needed help.

But is the reason why Stein said “no” to slaughtering the pig valid? Firstly, the 1885 Fair drew record breaking crowds with the peak being September 17th.21 Given that, it would make sense the Menches brothers would have exhausted their supply of sausage, necessitating a trip to Andrew Stein’s meat market. Now, bear in mind, with no refrigeration technology, daily weather conditions were more important back then. In reviewing the meteorological records during the 1885 fair, we can pinpoint one day where it was “unusually hot and humid.” According to data obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 1885 Erie County Fair showed temperature rising each day, peaking on September 18th. The high temperature hovered about 4 degrees above the previous 13-year average and the low temperature nearly 10 degrees hotter than average. Furthermore, local newspaper reports indicate the high temperature that day was reached around noon and the humidity pushing above 90%.22

While the prevailing weather conditions certainly support Stein’s decision not to slaughter the pig, a more compelling reason existed, one that Frank (and Kunzog) might not have been familiar with. At the time of the 1885 Fair, an epidemic known as hog cholera killed off much of the local herds in Western New York.23 Not only did this result in fewer entries in the swine class, but it might have led Stein to conclude he couldn’t waste a pig.

It would be nice to report I could find minutes from the Erie County Agricultural Society detailing the change in policy regarding wood and coal burning stoves. Unfortunately, records back then weren’t kept as well as they’re kept now.

The same thing could be said of a report of a woman’s dress catching fire. If it occurred, it likely didn’t cause too much harm otherwise the normally sensationalistic reporting of the era would have documented it. I can say we do see evidence of the power of the “Ladies Department” as 1885 saw the opening of a brand new “Domestic Hall” (referred to today as the “Octagon Building”) on their behalf.24

I’ll end with this vignette. One of the chief criticisms of the Menches Brothers Hamburg, N.Y. origin story is the town’s name. “Hamburg? Isn’t that a bit too convenient?” they might say. Compounding this perception is Kunzog’s naming story, replete with the German tongue. It certainly sounds contrived, the fruit of some poetic license.

Or is it? Here’s a clip from an actual newspaper report of the 1885 Erie County Fair:

“E.B. Brown and wife of Prospect Avenue took in the fair yesterday. At dinner time they repaired to the spacious dining room under the grand stand. Mr. Brown being rather hungry inquired if they had any vegetables. ‘Oh, yah,’ replied the proprietor. ‘Ve always keeps a big shupply of do Hamburg cheese. Do vas mine choicest vegetable!’”25

The reporter mimics the German dialect as best he could. Meanwhile, lest you believe “Hamburg Cheese” to be of German origin, it was the name commonly applied to cheese coming from (initially Hamburg, N.Y.) Western New York-based dairies. Its popularity peaked just before the Civil War.26 If “Hamburg cheese” was named after the town of Hamburg, N.Y., why not the “Hamburg sandwich.”

The circumstantial evidence for the Menches hamburger origin story is very strong. How might all this have actually taken place? Find out in…

A Day In Hamburger History – September 18, 1885 – Everything is the Same, Except, “You Are There!”

(continued next week)

1“Picnics,” Stark County Democrat, Thursday, July 14, 1881, p.5
2“A Field Day – Bicycle Races.” The Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio), Thursday, July 9, 1885, p.5
3“The Salem Tournament,” The Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio), Thursday, July 8, 1886, p.3
4“‘Inventor’ of Hamburger Dies,” Dayton Daily News, Friday, October 5, 1951, p. 4
5“C-E Printer Writes Book on Circus Great,” by Margaret Fess, Buffalo Courier-Express, Sunday, August 19, 1964, page 38
6Charles Menches is often cited with creating the Ice Cream Cone at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and in 1909 the Menches Brothers did receive a patent on the waffle cone iron they invented.
7“New Liberty Theater One of Finest; Has Both Beauty and Comfort,” The Akron Beacon Journal, Thursday, September 8, 1921, p.14
8“Stefos to Tell His Life Story Today,” The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, Saturday, March 7, 1925
9“Erie County Fair,” Erie County Independent, Friday, September 4, 1885
10Letter dated June 17, 1985 to Supervisor Jack Quinn, Jr., re: “Hamburg Chamber of Commerce ‘Birth of the Burger’ Celebration”
11“The Fair at Hamburg – A Large Number of Entries and a Beautiful Display in Every Department. – Fair Weather and Good Attendance,” The Buffalo Commercial, Thursday, September 17, 1885, page 3
12“The Erie County Fair – An Average Attendance and Good Exhibits at Hamburg – Fine Stock Shown – Yesterday’s Horse Races,” Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, Thursday, September 17, 1885, page 5
13“The County Fair,” Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, Tuesday, September 23, 1884, page 4
14“Erie County Agricultural Society,” Erie County Independent, Friday, October 10, 1884, page 1
15“Reports of Standing Committees,” The Buffalo Commercial, Tuesday, February 3, 1891, p.8
16“Popular Hamburg Sandwich to Receive a Two-Day Salut on Its 100th Anniversary,” by June Streamer, Hamburg Sun, Thursday, July 25, 1985, p.23
17“The Village of Hamburg – A Brief Description of its Business and Institutions of Public Interest,” Springville Journal, Saturday, July 24, 1875, p.3
18“Hamburg,” The Buffalo Times, Monday, April 1, 1889, p.2
19“The Erie County Fair,” Springville Journal, Saturday, September 27, 1873, p.3
20“Erie County Supervisors,” Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, Wednesday, October 10, 1877, p.3
21“The Fair,” Erie County Independent, Friday, September 25, 1885
22“Local Observations – September 18, 1885,” Buffalo Morning Express, Saturday, September 19, 1885
23“Fun at the Fair – Hamburg the Center of Attraction for Erie County People – How the Politician Works It – A Comparison with Previous Fairs – 10,000 People Expected There Today,” The Buffalo Times, Thursday, September 17, 1885, page 1
24“Erie County Fair,” Erie County Independent, Sunday, August 7, 1885
25“Hamburg’s Gala Day – Over 3,000 Buffalonians at the Fair Yesterday. – The Crowd Estimated at 10,000 – Lively Races and Splendid Exhibits,” The Buffalo Commercial, Friday, September 18, 1885, page 3
26“Dairying,” Springville Journal (Springville, N.Y.), Saturday, March 13, 1880, p.2

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