Hamburger Charlie – Seymour, Wisconsin - Gastro Obscura
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Seymour, Wisconsin

Hamburger Charlie

A statue honors the genius who allegedly first took a meatball and made it into a hamburger. 

If you Google “who invented the hamburger,” the answer comes faster than you can say “Big Mac.” It was Louis Lassen, Google’s automatically generated answer declares. Lassen’s diner, Louis’ Lunch, still operates in New Haven, Connecticut, and has been recognized by the Library of Congress as the birthplace of the hamburger. But parade this bit of trivia in Seymour, Wisconsin, and you might risk getting hit in the face with a beef patty. Everybody in this tiny dairy town (population: around 3,500) anoints Charlie Nagreen as the original burger king. For proof of their claim to fast-food fame, look no further than the giant statue devoted to Nagreen that towers over Depot Street, right off Highway 55 in the downtown district.

The legend goes that Nagreen was 15 years old and living in nearby Hortonville, when he loaded his oxcart full of meatballs and traveled to the Seymour County Fair, where he would invent and sell his first hamburger in 1885, 15 years before Lassen was doing his own burger magic in the East. Business was slow, and the young Charlie, a precocious entrepreneur, realized people wanted a portable meal so they could keep circulating the fairgrounds. So he smashed two meatballs between two pieces of bread to come up with an instant, iconic hit. He called it the hamburger, a strong marketing ploy targeted at the many fairgoers who were German immigrants settled in the Hortonville area. These Germans were probably familiar with the Hamburg steak, and Nagreen improvised on that ground beef steak by adding onions and making a sandwich of it, or so locals believe. For the next 65 years, Nagreen came to the Seymour County Fair every year, making small but significant improvements to his fried chopped beef sandwich—adding a pickle, switching to a bun—until he came to what is now universally acknowledged as one of the United States’ greatest culinary offerings to the world.

Whether the story is true or not is immaterial to the faithful burger-lovers of Seymour, who erected a 12-foot statue as a tribute to their very own “Hamburger Charlie.” It stands four blocks away from the original site of the county fair, with a plaque inscribed with the ditty Charlie would sing to draw customers.

Because the nonbelievers who worship at other churches of burgerian faith are many, Seymour has continued to stress its claims to original burgerdom. In addition to Charlie Nagreen’s statue and the many signs around town declaring it the “Home of the Hamburger,” Seymour organizes an annual burger festival. In 1989, the first year of the festival, they earned the Guinness world record for the largest burger, building a true whopper that weighed in at 5,100 pounds (the record was broken by Montana in 1999). The original grill to make the record-breaking burger is also on display in the town today, and a website for Burger Fest includes details of the festival, which features hot air balloons and burger memorabilia.

So, when summertime comes around and you’re heating up the grill for a weekend barbecue of burgers and beer, say a vote of thanks to Charlie Nagreen (and Louis Lassen, for good measure). Ultimately, the truest home of the hamburger is in the happy belly of its eater.

Know Before You Go

The statue is down the street from the Seymour Museum, which claims to house the world's largest collection of hamburger-related memorabilia.

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