Sherman “Cocky” Porter serving his hamburgers in the 1913 flood-drenched streets of Miamisburg, Ohio.
In Cincinnati we hear about the devastating Flood of 1937. But for the Miami Valley around Dayton, Ohio, the most devastating was the Great Flood of 1913, which busted the banks of the Great Miami River and caused countless damage to the river towns that flanked its banks. One of those was the thriving community of Miamisburg. As devastating as the flood was to Miamisburg, one great local institution came out of it that’s still in existence today – the Hamburger Wagon.
As most of Miamisburg was under water, the Red Cross set up a tent city for the refugees on high ground at the top of Mound Hill. One enterprising 27-year old Miamisburg resident, Sherman “Cocky” Porter, saw potential, and volunteered to help provide food for the flood victims and relief workers. Porter lived with his wife Nina, and two sons Will and James on Sugar Street. Porter knew that whatever food he made had to be warm to cut through the cold March winds, and available in large quantities to feed the hundreds of displaced victims. Hamburger were just the answer. Using a favorite family recipe, Porter began serving up hot, tasty hamburgers to everyone in the camp for many days. These sandwiches were a huge hit and were extremely popular throughout the community.
As the floods receeded, and the tent city closed, Miamisburg returned to normal life, and Cocky went back to his job as a wheelmaker at the Enterprise Buggy Company on Pearl Street, north of the railroad tracks. But the residents didn’t forget the burger that comforted them through their time of great need. Residents loved the little “Porter Burgers” and requested him to cook them up again. Demand increased and Porter finally agreed to start selling burgers on Saturdays. He made a wagon at the Enterprise Company, based on a milk delivery truck, and began parking it at Market Square at Main and Central Avenues in downtown Miamisburg six days a week.
The Enterprise Carriage Works in Miamisburg, where the Hamburger Wagon was made.
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 when Porter’s grandson sold it to Claude Jestice, a runaway from the Frigidaire Plant nearby. His twin brother Clyde helped him run the business. Gary and Judy Ladd Jestice were the next owners through the 1980s. It’s been owned by only six people in its 105 year existence. The current owner, Jack Sperry, bought it in 2008, with the intent to preserve and enhance it’s legacy. He coined the slogan, “No stinkin’ cheeses and no sloppy sauces.” The wagon was rebuilt in 1980 by Mike Hunter of Miamisburg’s Woodcraft, on the original design.
The roughly two ounces of meat hold a secret recipe of meat and spices, topped with pickles, onions, salt and pepper. That Porter family recipe is as guarded as the original Coca-Cola formula and KFC’s original blend of herbs and spices. Some say the secret is sausage in the meat. They’re flash fried in an oversized cast iron skillet and have a crispy outer edge. They recycle unused grease from day to day, which certainly adds to the signature flavor.
Only recently has the wagon added chips and drinks. At one time you could get Miamisburg-made Wagner’s Potato Chips, but that company closed. And, it was ranked one of the top 100 hamburgers in the United States by the book “Hamburger America.”
The business is so popular – selling an estimated 1000 sliders a day – in 2011, Tim and Lisa Gibbs in neighboring West Carrollton decided to get a piece of the action and opened Gibbs Olde Time Hamburgers in an historic wagon on East Dixie Drive. In addition to sliders with onion and pickle like the Porter Burgers, they serve chili dogs, deep fried southern slaw dogs, and pulled pork sandwiches.
It’s worth a Saturday early afternoon day trip to Miamisburg for a bite of American burger nostalgia