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The Ballad of Hamburger Charlie

Quick, off the top of your head, who are the most influential people to hail from our area?

There’s certainly Sen. Joseph “Red Scare” McCarthy, he of the legendary ability to find a

communist at the bottom of every bottle. We can also credibly claim Greta Van Susteren and

Willem Dafoe, two Fox Valley natives who have ably brought their talents and terrific

cheekbones to a worldwide audience. Add retired NFL star Rocky Bleier and brief resident

Harry Houdini to the mix, and the conversation is largely complete.

But don’t tell that to John Steltz. Steltz, a longtime educator and coach in Seymour, WI, is

something of an amateur historian, with much of his time and effort dedicated to preaching the

fascinating (and admittedly hard to verify) gospel of a man named Charles “Hamburger Charlie”

Nagreen. According to Steltz, as well as many other credible sources, the hamburger was

created in by Nagreen in 1885 at the Outagamie County Fair. And so I decided to find out, is it

true? And if so, does it matter?

Before we answer either of these questions, let’s first enjoy the gist of the Hamburger Charlie

legend, gleaned from Steltz and an assortment of online resources, not all of which are


Let’s go back to Hortonville, WI, circa 1885. Charlie Nagreen is fifteen years old, and fancieshimself something of an entrepreneur. He routinely takes his oxcart to fairs and festivals nearby,where he shills his meatballs to anyone with an appetite and a mouth. Yet, during theaforementioned 1885 Outagamie County Fair, he encounters a two-fold problem. First, it’s thirty miles from Hortonville to Seymour, and for a teen on an oxcart, this may as well be Narnia.

Second, meatballs are difficult to eat while walking, and fairgoers are skipping his oxcart. Time

is money, of course, and he needs to squeeze the most out of every meatball-loving attendee.

At this moment, a thought stops Charlie in his tracks, and if most farms weren’t still thirty years

away from getting electricity, a lightbulb might’ve appeared above his head: he can flatten the

meatballs, slide the streamlined patty between two pieces of bread, and buyers can now walk

around the fair unencumbered. This is exactly what he does, and it’s a certifiable phenomenon.

Eventually, his creation will be given a name to appeal to Germans’ love of Hamburg steak, he’ll

adopt the moniker of “Hamburger Charlie,” and he will live out his days appealing to diners’

appetites by ringing a bell and shouting the following refrain, which is an honest matter of

historical record:

Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger hot.

With an onion in the middle and a pickle on top

Makes your lips go flippity flop.

Come on over, try an order.

Fried in butter, listen to it sputter.

By the time that Hamburger Charlie passes away in 1951, he’s a minor local legend. Sixty-odd

years later, his legacy is celebrated every summer in Seymour, to say nothing of the

approximately 50 billion burgers consumed yearly, according to the odd statisticians at PBS.

So, is it all true? Did he really create the hamburger? There are at least two other credible

parallel claims, and they each smack of, “Well, I also put bread around cooked meat. Now give

me money.” At the very least, it’s impossible to disprove that “Hamburger Charlie” was among

the first, and only a crazy person would suggest that he knew what some haughty Texan was

doing in Abilene at the same moment.

But more important is the second question: does it matter? To that, I’d listen to the exuberance

in his voice as John Steltz talks about him, or see the thousands of people crowding Seymour’s

Burgerfest, or wonder how one clever kid with an oxcart helped give birth to a $73-billion-per-

year industry. If nothing else, ask how much of Houdini’s history actually has anything

whatsoever to do with Appleton. Of course it matters.

And with that, I’m going to go ahead and propose it: “Hamburger Charlie Square,” coming soon

to a Wisconsin city near you.

October 2016

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