Hamburger WhoDunIt Part VII: Those Amazing Menches Boys

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(The seventh part in a series of seven)

Brothers Charles and Frank Menches were prolific concessionaires. They didn’t start that way. By the time he was twenty, Charles had a “successful season” with the Bob Stickney circus. Contemporary reporters called him a “thoroughly proficient” trapeze artist.1 After spending several years as a high wire and trapeze artist with the Bob Stickney circus and the Old John Robinson circus, Charles decided to enter the concession business full-time with his brother Frank in 1884.2

Frank, six years younger than Charles, was no slouch when it came to athleticism, either. He was an award-winning bicycle racer, competing into his early twenties.3,4

Born in Canton, Ohio, the brothers dove into multiple business ventures at an early age. While working with the circus, Charles began dabbling in concession sales. Very quickly, he determined selling food and drink brought in more profits – and was considerably safer – than performing death-defying gymnastics several stories in the air. That led to his decision to leave Stickney. Still, the circus proved a useful experience. It gave him and his brother both credibility (remember, in 1884 Frank was only nineteen and Charles was twenty-five) and, more critically, connections.5

Charles remained captivated by the showmanship of performing. When the Menches Brothers were awarded the drink and food concession at the Summit County Fair, Charles couldn’t hold back. In a 1938 interview, Frank recalled, “We erected a couple of telegraph poles inside the track, opposite the grand stand. We strung a high wire from the top of the grand stand to one of the poles – and Charles walked it. We gave an exhibition of wire walking and trapeze acts. Charles was the star in that line – although I did some work on the rings.”6

Throughout this period, the brothers operated a cigar store on Tuscarawas Street in their home town. It’s likely to have been a burden to be on the road and run a retail store. Indeed, when the store was robbed in 1884, an eyewitness didn’t run to see either of the brothers. He ran to report the suspicious activity to their parents.7 They also ran a grocery store a few doors down on Tuscarawas Street.8

Remember those connections I referred to earlier? They didn’t just arise from Charles’ circus career. Their cigar store was located in close proximity to the law offices of William McKinley.9 At the time, McKinley was serving in Congress, but by 1892 he would become governor of the State of Ohio and, in 1896, President of the United States.

The Menches brothers had more than a passing acquaintance with the future president. Charles briefly (1887) partnered in business (the Menches & Barber Circus, of course) with Orrin Barber, the nephew of McKinley’s wife.10 Despite the eventual falling out with Barber,11 the brothers remained close with McKinley. How do we know this? Because in December of 1891, McKinley wrote a glowing letter on behalf of these “deserving young men” to one of the directors of the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair advocating the Menches Brothers be awarded the popcorn concession for the event.12

By the time McKinley wrote his letter of recommendation, the brothers’ concession business had taken off. In 1889 the Stark County Fair (Canton, Ohio) awarded them major concession rights to “dispense lunch and eatables from two stands near the Grand Stand.”13 In 1891, the Summit County Fair (Akron, Ohio) granted Frank and Charles exclusive food and soft drink concession rights. The brothers retained these rights until the 1913 flood ended the fair.14

Charles and Frank Menches were successful entrepreneurs, entertainers, and inventors. While they may have been entertainers in their heart, they “made their nut” (to borrow a phrase John C. Kunzog attributed to Frank15) via the concessions business rather than through performance. “Charles quickly discovered he could make more money selling popcorn, candy, and peanuts than he could as a trapeze artist,” says John Menches, the great grandson of Charles Menches.16

The Menches brothers began their concession business at just the right time. Shortly after the Civil War, the United States was hit with several boom and bust economic cycles. One of the worst was the Depression of 1882-1885. During the infamous Panic of 1884, 5% of all American factories and mines were completely shut down and another 5% were partially closed, leaving nearly 1 million people out of work.17 By focusing on country fairs and races, the Menches brothers avoided the heavily industrialized urban areas. This insulated them from the frequent late-nineteenth century recessions.

Their concession business soon grew beyond fair, expositions, and tracks. Seeing opportunity in the next town over, Frank and Charles relocated from their hometown of Canton, Ohio to nearby Akron in 1897.18 In 1899 the Menches Brothers became proprietors of Summit Lake Park.19 This resort and entertainment venue included acrobats, singers, dancers, and even a theater. Again, no doubt their old circus connections came in handy. In 1901, they bought adjacent property that included baseball fields and started hosting baseball games.20

With the concession business thriving at both the park and the county fairs, the Menches brothers created a confectionary manufacturer to supply their various ventures. Called “Premium Candy and Corn,” the Menches brothers experimented to create novelty products. They called one of those “Gee-Whiz” popcorn – essentially caramel popcorn and peanuts. Sound familiar? Today we call it “Crackerjacks” (although the Crackerjacks company does not refer to the Menches Brothers in their own origin story).

Things didn’t go so well at Summit Lake Park when the Northern Ohio Traction company realigned their routes. Summit Lake Park found itself outside that realignment and the Menches Brothers declared bankruptcy in 1903. They came out of bankruptcy in 1904, just in time for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. This event is more commonly known as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It was there that Charles is said to have discovered the idea of wrapping a waffle into a conical shape to create a cone to place ice cream in. The family believes it was Frank who came up with the idea of creating the cone using a “fid,” a wooden tool shaped like a cylinder to unravel rope.

Whatever the origin, the idea was a hit. Selling ice cream cones at their booths, the Menches Brothers couldn’t keep up with demand. They retrofitted their Premium Candy and Corn company to produce ice cream cones and changed its name to “Premium Candy, Corn and Cone Company.” They couldn’t get a patent on the ice cream cone itself, so Charles got a patent on the next best thing – the waffle iron to make the cones. At its height, the company made 60,000 cones a day. All the while, they maintained their concessionaire business, selling sausage, hamburgers, oysters, drinks, cigars, and, of course, ice cream cones.

The boys built their homes with the profits from this enterprise. But nothing lasts forever. By 1916, the Menches brothers couldn’t match their competitors who had better capital. They sold Premium Candy, Corn and Cone Company. With the proceeds from the sale, they built the Liberty Theater just as the motion picture business started to explode. Once again, they hopped on a wave just as it was beginning to crest. They also built a hotel, restaurant and a novelty balloon company because, well, you can’t say “Menches” without also saying “novelty.”

They continued to operate concession stands at local county fairs into the 1920s, but focused most of their energies on the Liberty Theater. When Charles died in 1931, his obituary played up his role in the invention of the ice cream cone and mentioned his part in inventing the hamburger as an aside. When Frank died in 1951, his obituary played up his role in the invention of the hamburger and mentioned his part in inventing the ice cream cone as an aside. Their real legacy, though, appeared in the closing paragraph of a story that ran in 1932. It reads, “[the] Menches [brothers] will not be commemorated by an expensive monument and [their] name may never reach the pages of the encyclopedias, but [they] did [their] bit in making people happier.”21

And I hope this series makes you a little happier the next time you take a bite out of a big juicy hamburger.

1“Picnics,” Stark County Democrat, Thursday, July 14, 1881, p.5
2“Around the Town,” by H.B. (Doc) Kerr, Akron Beacon Journal, Tuesday, December 6, 1938, p. 36
3“A Field Day – Bicycle Races.” The Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio), Thursday, July 9, 1885, p.5
4“The Salem Tournament,” The Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio), Thursday, July 8, 1886, p.3
5Interview with John Menches and Ron Bush, October 19, 2017
6“Around the Town,” by H.B. (Doc) Kerr, Akron Beacon Journal, Tuesday, December 6, 1938, p. 36]
7“Burglars Make a Haul,” Stark County Democrat, April 17, 1884, p.5
8Stark County Democrat (a.k.a. “Canton News-Democrat”), Wednesday, July 3, 1895, p.16 – Advertisement
9Interview with John Menches and Ron Bush, October 19, 2017
10“Menches & Barber’s Circus. – Undoubtedly the Best Equipped Cheap Circus on the Road,” Stark County Democrat, April 21, 1887, p.7
11“A Circus Split – Barber Wants a Receiver for the Menches & Barber Show,” Stark County Democrat (a.k.a. “Canton News-Democrat”), October 20, 1887, p.5
12“Around the Town with H.B. (Doc) Kerr,” The Akron Beacon Journal, Saturday, December 31, 1938, p. 14
13“County Fair,” Stark County Democrat, Thursday, September 12, 1889, p.5
14“Around the Town,” by H.B. (Doc) Kerr, Akron Beacon Journal, Tuesday, December 6, 1938, p. 36
15Tanbark and Tinsel, by John C. Kunzog, 1970, p. 157
16Interview with John Menches and Ron Bush, October 19, 2017
17Carroll D. Wright, Industrial Depressions: The First Annual Report of the United States Commissioner of Labor. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1886; pg. 65-66
18The Akron Beacon Journal, Monday, December 5, 1938, p. 9 – “Around the Town with H.B. (Doc) Kerr”
19Akron Daily Democrat, May 19, 1899, p.4 – Advertisement
20Akron Daily Democrat, Monday, May 13, 1901, p.1 – “Ball Park – At Summit Lake Changing Hands. – Menches Bros. Buy It of the N.O.T. Co.”
21The Times (Munster, Indiana), Monday, January 25, 1932, p.4 – “Genesis of Cone” (Elkhart Truth)

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