Month: May 2014

BETWEEN THE BUNS: A Short History of the Hamburger in Paducah

Photo is not of a Paducah hamburger stand, but one similar to those found at the turn of the 20th century.

Photo is not of a Paducah hamburger stand, but one similar to those found at the turn of the 20th century.

March 28 was National Hamburger Day.

Let the rejoicing begin.

We who work in the Local and Family History Department are quite fond of our hamburgers (so much so that they are often times a matter of debate and salivation behind the desk). Thus, it only stands to reason that on this glorious holiday we should spend a little time researching Paducah’s history with this beacon of foods.

Hamburger steaks have likely been around as long as people figured out how to mince beef. The emergence of the hamburger steak between two slices of bread, however, looks to be an invention of the late 19th or early 20th century. Several lay claim to the creation of the sandwich from a county fair in Wisconsin to a street vendor in Texas to a German cook in New York who was trying to recreate a popular sailors’ lunch from his homeland. Though we may not be able to figure out exactly who invented the hamburger as we know it today, all the early claims fall between the years of 1895 and 1904.

There are a few references to hamburger steaks in editions of The Paducah Sun from the late 1800’s, but the earliest mention of a proprietor serving something just called “a hamburger” was in 1902. Sam Gott, a saloon owner and restaurateur, owned a few businesses in Paducah yet his flagship establishment was located on North Fourth Street. He advertised his lunch specials daily in The Sun, and his early fare included Pork & Turnips, Rabbit, Veal, Barbecued Spring Lamb, and Turtle Soup. Long about 1902, and several times a week thereafter Mr. Gott started advertising “the best lunch the market affords…go there tonight for a nice hamburger.” As there was no description or recipe, it’s unclear as to whether this meal was the hamburger sandwich as we think of it, though not once did Sam Gott’s advertising ever use the word steak.

Following Mr. Gott’s plate lunch specials in 1902, Paducah seemed to burgeon with street food vendors for the next few years. “Hamburgers and Hot Tamales? Go to Shorty’s on 117 S. Third.” Lem Parker had his hamburger stand on the corner of Broadway and Jefferson at Fourth Street. There were stands all over the city it seems. Next to Weille’s Department Store sat one such stand. It was a prime and well-trafficked area of Broadway, yet that small stand was the victim of an inexplicable Christmas-time crime on December 23, 1904. According to The Sun, at 7:00 that evening, the “hamburger man” was in his small house cooking up his wares when a “drunken farmer” stopped, pulled a large canon cracker from his pants pocket, lit the fuse with his cigar, and threw it under the stand. The hamburger man was unhurt and his stand only suffered a little broken glass. The drunken farmer got away.

Hamburger stands were so popular in this time that the Chief of Police James Collins ordered the vendors to take their food off the streets at night, as the scent of so many hamburgers was driving people indoors while the “plaintive cries of ‘red hot’ almost made many candidates for the asylum.”

While none of the of these stands advertised hamburger steaks, there is still no mention of bread, so it is unclear to this point whether Paducah had yet discovered the joys of the real hamburger. It wasn’t until 1906 that The Paducah Sun first used the phrase hamburger sandwich. Unfortunately the hamburger sandwich wasn’t celebrated in the article. In fact, it was listed as a cause of a shooting. On July 23, 1906, John Mix got into a scuffle with Cicero Anderson at Graham’s Saloon on 9th and Kentucky. Anderson ended up fatally shooting Mix in the abdomen. Said an eyewitness, “The shooting is the result of a quarrel over a pint of whiskey and half a hamburger sandwich.”

A shooting at a saloon.

What a horrible place to stake our hamburger heritage!

However, the mere mention of a “hamburger sandwich” in a police blotter does not establish a precedent. By 1906 we may have had bread included with our hamburgers, but where are the toppings? True hamburgers—note-worthy, historically relevant burgers—must have toppings as well. For that we flash forward to February 1909 and a much more pleasing anecdote again published in the Paducah Sun.

A farmer of meager means approached Lem Parker’s hamburger stand on Fourth and Jefferson. Seeing that hamburgers were only a nickel, he ordered one. Lem, the proprietor, asked the farmer if he wanted onions or pickles. Not knowing any better or thinking he was being misled by a city boy, the farmer said, “Neither. I want a meat hamburger.” Lem then proceeded to construct the sandwich for the naïve farmer—onions, pickles, and meat between slices of bread. In the words of The Sun, “The farmer devoured it with relish.”

That was that farmer’s introduction to the hamburger, and, as far as we know, Paducah’s introduction as well. Our history with the hamburger may be a little sketchy, falling somewhere between 1902 and 1909, but what we do know for absolute sure is that we have a lot of fine burgers in this town now. Just ask us in Local and Family History. We’ve tried them all.

For more about “Food, Glorious Food” or inane, arbitrary holidays, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger


Though not a Paducah scene, this was the same German Village brought to the Elks Fair in 1901.

Though not a Paducah scene, this was the same German Village brought to the Elks Fair in 1901.


This weekend, Paducah celebrates the Lowertown Arts and Music Festival, one of the many great festivals held in our fair city every year. But the festival atmosphere is certainly nothing new to Paducahans, and in fact, during this week in Paducah history, May 14-18, 1901, the town was in the midst of a massive carnival sponsored by the Elks Club. Held in the Downtown/Lowertown area with the main attractions showcased on a lot at Ninth and Broadway, the carnival brought festival-goers from as far away as Evansville, Louisville, and St. Louis. According to the May 16, 1901 issue of the Paducah Sun, “The crowd in the city today is estimated to be the largest ever here at one time before in the history of Paducah,” which proved later to be about 12,000 people on that one day alone.

1901 wasn’t the first year for the Elks carnival. It had been started two years prior in 1899, but for those first two years the carnival was a relatively small affair, a local fundraiser, if you will. Even the early accounts for the 1901 carnival didn’t tout the event as being quite so spectacular. A major attraction, as reported in a February 1901 edition of The Sun, was to be the inclusion of a nursery for children… “where people may leave their children in the care of good, responsible nurses and have them checked like a trunk at the depot or an overcoat at the hotel.”

Something happened in the interim months, however; the size of the carnival grew, expanding from a weekend to a full five days. Midway performers were brought in from out of town. The event was advertised far and wide, up and down the rivers. The carnival grew such that it essentially took over the entire city, to the point that Mayor Lang handed over the city to the Elks on opening day, formally putting the Elks in charge of the city for the duration of the event.

Said Elks’s Director General Lagomarsino to a crowd of thousands upon receiving the key to the city – “Ladies and Gentlemen—In these days of mad racing for wealth, when we live two days in one day, and the duties of two weeks are crowded into one, it becomes a necessity to devise some means which will relax the tightly strung nerves and give rest to the over-taxed brain. A means by which this end may be attained should be hailed with delight by the whole people and the projectors thereof should have their comfort and support in their arduous labors. Such we claim this carnival to be.”

The townspeople took this mandate to heart. With the fair beginning at 1:30 pm each afternoon of that week, the vast majority of merchants and banks in town agreed to close shop by early afternoon so their employees could attend. The post office shut down. Children were let out of school early.

Big Joe Grimes of Cincinnati, once thought to be the heaviest man in the world at 764 pounds.

Big Joe Grimes of Cincinnati, once thought to be the heaviest man in the world at 764 pounds.

The scope and variety of the attractions at the 1901 Elks Carnival were second to none, and likely novelties to many of the festival-goers of the early 20th century. We don’t have a complete list of Midway performers and attractions, but we know of a few…
*a wild animal menagerie
*camel rides
*a German Village which featured musical and comedy acts, as well as beer and sausages
*the Ladies Auxiliary “fish pond” from which prizes could be drawn
*the Streets of India tent which featured acrobatics and “oriental” dancing girls
*the famous Backman Glass Blowing demonstration with a working glass steam engine as well as glass dresses, neck ties, and pin cushions
*a Flower Parade, not unlike the Rose Bowl Parade in concept, during which the crowd threw so much confetti that it stood ankle-deep in the streets. As reported, “Every body caught throwing flour, rice, or anything other than confetti will be arrested by order of Director Lagomarsino.”
*the Thompson High Divers, a husband and wife team. “The man dives one hundred feet and his wife about half that far. They are paid five hundred dollars a week for this feature.”
*Madame Roltare, a palm reader out of Chicago. The paper praised her as a “highly educated young woman” who “deserves the popularity that she is winning.”
*Joe Grimes, “the fat boy,” who tipped the scales at 740 pounds. Mr. Grimes made his living with his girth and had actually been to Paducah before, helping advertise a bicycle firm.

Of course, no major event is without its mishaps. One of the performers from the “Streets of India,” a Mr. Jeff Presley of Knoxville, tried to jump a fence at Ninth and Broadway and landed on the iron fence at Grace Episcopal, striking one of the pickets through his foot. In trying to dislodge himself, Mr. Presley succeeded in piercing the other foot as well. The paper reported he was in “very bad condition.”

Also, one of the hyenas from the Midway menagerie managed to escape its cage at two ‘o clock in the morning and wandered over to the “Streets of India” tent, finding its way into the sleeping quarters where the “Turks” were at rest. The sniffing beast woke one of the performers who promptly rolled himself into his blanket, figuring the hungry creature wouldn’t want to eat the blanket as well. He was right. The was ultimately lassoed and returned to its cage without further incident.

All told, the Elks fair of 1901 brought in 80,000 paid admissions—a staggering figure for the time. After expenses, the Elks profited $6000, approximately $150,000 in today’s money. The carnival proved to be so popular that it ran for many more years after 1901, getting a little bigger and better each time.

To learn more about menageries, mishaps, and Midways, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

Backman's Steam Engine

Backman’s Steam Engine



Mary Towles Sasseen Wilson

Mary Towles Sasseen Wilson

Popular history (which includes Wikipedia) states that the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States was a West Virginian woman named Anna Marie Jarvis who on May 10, 1908 organized a celebration at a local church to celebrate the memory of her mother and to honor all mothers. Following her initial celebration, Miss Jarvis started a campaign, soliciting national executives and politicians to recognize the commemorative day. Her efforts paid off for in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a holiday.

Not to take away from Miss Jarvis’ persistence and hard work (her recognition is certainly deserved), but there’s evidence that some of the seeds for a Mother’s Day celebration were planted many years earlier in Henderson, KY at the impetus of a schoolteacher, Miss Mary Towles Sasseen.

In 1885, Miss Towles, aged 25, became a teacher and the principal of the primary department at the Center Street School in Henderson. She was described as being quite tall with auburn hair, a quick wit, and even quicker smile. She was once quoted as once saying, “Say what you’d like to say, just say it with a smile.”

Her efforts to found a day in honor of mothers started early in her career. Within the first couple of years of teaching, she’d already organized a program in her school to celebrate motherhood. Held on April 20, her own mother’s birthday, she wrote poems and stories that her students recited and invited her students’ mothers to be present.

Miss Sasseen’s efforts didn’t stop with a local celebration. It was said that she traveled extensively, addressing organizations and meetings around the country to promote the idea that there should be a national day set aside to honor mothers. In 1893 Miss Sasseen published a 32-page pamphlet entitled “Mother’s Day Celebration” in which she wrote: “It suggested itself to me that by celebrating Mother’s Day once a year, much of the veneration, love and respect due to parents might, by song, verse, and story, be inculcated in the next generation. By a Mother’s Day, I mean a day on which parents shall be invited to the school and a programme presented, the recitations being on the subject of mother, the songs referring to home.”

Recognition of her efforts to establish a Mother’s Day did not go unheeded by the wider public. In 1899 Miss Sasseen sought state office as the Democratic nominee for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Her biography circulated in newspapers throughout the state, and each included the following declaration: “She is an author and originator of Mother’s Day. Within the past five years she has, unaided, secured the adoption of the day of the day in a large number of States and cities, like Boston, Brooklyn and Little Rock have had from 10,000 to 14,000 pupils in line, singing songs of home and reciting poems in honor of mother (Richmond Climax, June 7, 1899).

Miss Sasseen, who became Mrs. Wilson in 1904, unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see the continued efforts of Miss Jarvis in 1907 or the institution of a national Mother’s Day in 1914. In an ironically tragic twist of fate, Mary Towles Sasseen Wilson died in childbirth in 1906. She had no other children.

However, her obituary from the Henderson Gleaner stated that she “will long be remembered for her institution of ‘Mothers’ Day’ in the schools,” and in 1926 the Kentucky state legislature honored her as the “originator of the idea of a Mother’s Day celebration.”

And we still remember her today!

So three cheers and a big bouquet of flowers to Mrs. Sasseen Wilson for her role in creating (and you can tell my mom I said this) the most wonderful, richly deserved, and mom-tastic holiday of all time!

For more information about Kentucky moms, visit the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.




While our library may have McCracken County in its name, in truth we serve patrons from all over Western Kentucky, so today’s historical tale comes to you from Fulton County.
Yesterday in Western Kentucky history, April 30, 1900, we remembered the anniversary of the death of a legend, and not just a Kentucky legend, but a true American legend.

Jonathan Luther Jones.

Never heard of him? Hmmmm. Well, perhaps you know him better by his nickname.


Casey Jones.

That’s right. Casey Jones, fabled in story and song, was a true-to-life figure. Though born in 1863 in Jackson, Tennessee, Jones spent most of his formative years in Fulton County, Kentucky…in the town of Cayce…and if you’re able to put two and two together, I’m sure you can now devise how his famed nickname came about.

Jones went to work for the railroads in his early twenties and by 1891, at the age of 28, he’d already been promoted to engineer. In short order his talents were recognized by his peers, for he was heralded as always being on time, “to get her there on the advertised.” It is said that people set their watches by Casey’s trains.

Of course, his record for punctuality may have occasionally come at the expense of a few rules. In the course of his career, Jones was cited with 9 infractions, which included 145 total days of suspension. Such ambition and drive (not to mention old-fashioned bad luck) were perhaps, factors in his death on that April morning. His train, “The Cannonball Express,” was scheduled to leave Memphis, TN at 11:35 PM and arrive in Canton, MS at 4:05 AM, but because of the tardiness of a previous train, Casey wasn’t able to pull away from the Memphis station until 1 AM. Ever determined, Casey, along with his trusted fireman Simeon Webb, vowed to make a record run and get the train to Canton on time.

The skies spit rain, and the fog was swimmingly thick. The tracks on that stretch were known for some harrowing curves, yetdespite the challenges, Jones and Webb traveled at breakneck speed, pushing the Cannonball Express to heretofore unknown limits. Within the first hundred miles, they had already made up one hour of the lost 95 minutes.

Casey Jones

Casey Jones

Casey Jones was still doing a brisk clip, about 75 miles an hour, as he approached the city of Vaughan, MS, and it wasn’t until he rounded the blind 1.5 mile curve that would take him into the station that Jones and Webb realized that another railroad car had stalled on the tracks in front them. A crash was inevitable. Jones hollered for his fireman to, “Jump, Sim, jump,” and Mr. Webb did, landing nearly 300 feet from the spot where he leaped, knocking himself unconscious.

Jones, like a good captain, stayed with his ship. He sounded the horn to warn those ahead, slammed on the air brakes, reversed the throttle, and somehow, inexplicably, before ramming the caboose of the stalled train, was able to bring the train from 75 miles an hour to 35.

Only one person was killed by the accident…Casey himself. While the rest of the passengers were shaken up and received a few scrapes and bruises, none of them were seriously injured. Even Simeon Webb recovered from his jump. Jones’ decision to stay on the train and slow it down certainly saved the lives of many.

At the time of the crash, the Cannonball Express was only two minutes behind schedule.

It didn’t take long for Casey Jones’ legend to begin. Papers the following day recalled his exploits under the headlines, “The Sad End of Casey Jones” and “Heroic Engineer.” One paper reported, “”The marvel and mystery is how Engineer Jones stopped that train. The railroad men themselves wondered at it and of course the uninitiated could not do less. But stop it he did. In a way that showed his complete mastery of his engine, as well as his sublime heroism.” Following these reports, the legend grew and grew, inspiring museums, stories, movies, cartoons, and a line of postage stamps. Certainly though, the legend found its greatest security in the enduring folksong, “The Ballad of Casey Jones,”

Come all you rounders if you want to hear
The story of a brave engineer
Casey Jones was the rounder’s name
On the “six-eight” wheeler, boys, he won his fame

All this from a man nicknamed after a small town in Kentucky.

If you’d like to learn more about legendary Kentuckians, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.