Taste of nostalgia

Metro

Miamisburg’s Hamburger Wagon serves up a 103-year-old experience

By Brennan Burks

Photo: Jack Sperry’s Miamisburg-based Hamburger Wagon travels to Octoberfest and other festivals around Ohio; photos: Gary Hartman

With refurbished theatres, new and renewed breweries, and inching closer to riverfronts, the Miami Valley is revitalizing. While these efforts may originate from the need for economic growth, they are often sustained by an appreciation for what was. But this harkening to the past, this endeavor in nostalgia, doesn’t necessarily mean building something new. The 103-year-old Hamburger Wagon in Miamisburg embraces what has always been.

The story goes that as the water receded in Miamisburg from the Great Flood of 1913 and the Red Cross set up a relief station atop Mound Hill, workers quickly realized that a food shortage was imminent. In service to his community, local resident Sherman “Cocky” Porter offered his skillet, his wagon, and his family’s hamburger recipe.

Initially frying patties on Saturdays while the town recovered from the recent disaster, Cocky closed up shop once the relief station was no longer needed. However, residents wouldn’t have it. They demanded more of those Porter family burgers topped only with a pickle, a few slices of onion, salt, and pepper. And so, with clear demand, the Hamburger Wagon soon became a permanent fixture of Miamisburg’s dining scene.

Today, aside from one change of location (just around the corner because the long lines caused traffic problems in the 1950s), a wagon frame alteration in the 1970s, and the addition of pop and potato chips to the menu in 2001, not much is different from those first days on Central Avenue.

“Keeping it simple, keeping it anchored on the original recipe and experience is what keeps people lining up every day,” says Jack Sperry, who bought the Hamburger Wagon in 2008.

Sperry, born in Anchorage, Alaska, moved to the Miami Valley when he was in elementary school and his father, a doctor, took a job with Dayton Children’s Hospital. In those days, pediatricians traveled from the hospital to clinics all across the region. And it was during those trips, often on Sundays when Sperry would ride along with his dad, that he recalls detouring into Miamisburg just to stop at the Hamburger Wagon for a bite to eat after a long day of visiting patients.

“I remember how simple and good the burgers tasted and how friendly the two people in the wagon were,” Sperry reminisces. “I always think of that with every patty we make and every customer we serve.”

Even on a Monday afternoon in October, there is still a line for hamburgers and still two smiling faces to greet you when it’s your turn to order.

As with any time-honored tradition, people expect consistency. Here, they expect the same recipe and the same experience, perhaps because they see the old wooden wagon as a community institution.

“It’s almost like I’m not the owner, but the current caretaker,” Sperry says. “Because the Hamburger Wagon is owned by the people of the community and by everyone who keeps coming back.”

He also says that there is rarely a day when a customer doesn’t offer up a story similar to the one he told me, about his or her Hamburger Wagon memories, adding, “If I had a dollar every time I heard someone in line start a sentence with ‘I remember when…’ I’d be a rich man.”

With the benefits of ready-to-order nostalgia comes the responsibility of not only satisfying customers’ palates but also constantly meeting years of built-up expectations.

“When you’ve been here for 103 years, you hear about it when a sign is hanging crooked, when an employee isn’t as friendly, or when the size of the burger isn’t exactly how the customer remembered it—even if it was 30 or 40 years ago,” Sperry says. So if the menu is changed (which has only happened once, when previous owners, Chuck and Michelle Lyons, added potato chips and pop) the community makes its voice heard. Such is the case if the price changes, like when Sperry increased the price of a burger from $1.10 to $1.25: “The prices hadn’t changed in years, and I took a lot of grief for that,” he confesses. “I was the new guy in town, and some thought I wouldn’t keep up the tradition. But the lines haven’t gotten any shorter.”

Sperry notes that one must not forget, too, that while towns like Miamisburg are experiencing new growth, businesses like the Hamburger Wagon still require new customers to remain solvent. So, his plans for the future aren’t meant to change what the wagon means to the community; they are aimed at attracting new visitors to Miamisburg.

“A few years ago, I built a mobile wagon, and I’ve taken it to Columbus and Cincinnati and Dayton for festivals and other events,” he says. “And now people come from those places to get a taste of the original thing.”

“Just like Cocky and all the owners have tried to do,” Sperry adds, “we keep things simple. Our customers have always liked the burger as it was—crispy on the outside, soft on the inside—so we don’t change it. And people have always come back because we’re an anchor to the past.”

But nostalgia isn’t only experienced by those who keep coming back. Even on your first visit to the Hamburger Wagon, you will get a taste of the way things have always been.

The Hamburger Wagon is located at 12 E. Central Ave. in Miamisburg. For more information, please visit HamburgerWagon.com or call 937.847.2442.

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Brennan Burks
Reach DCP freelance writer Brennan Burks at BrennanBurks@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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