Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tracking the elusive Skeen Burger

Back in January, my latest assignment for the recently-published April issue of Davidson Living Magazine was to do a story on Skeen Burgers, the hamburger that made Thomasville famous.

Well, other than furniture, that is. And football. Thomasville's pretty famous for furniture and prep football state titles, you know.

But the assignment was quickly turning into a fool's errand. Visits to several Thomasville restaurants were turning up zilch. Not only were the local restaurants not serving Skeen Burgers, most of them hadn't even heard of Skeen Burgers.

Whaa...?? You mean the city's iconic hamburger, famously made with applesauce and Ritz crackers, was a fading memory?

Uh-oh. The story was going nowhere. I went back to The Dispatch, told my editor of my predicament, and what should we do? We decided to go ahead and do the story about something that no longer exists. Of course we did.

Getting the Skeen Burger story was a ton of fun...
 So it was back to Thomasville. My first stop was the S&S Grill, which used to be the Morning Glory in a previous life. The Morning Glory was Dewey Skeen's restaurant, which he built in 1947 in the furniture factory district and where he served steak burgers that he never named Skeen Burgers. I guess somebody else must have called them that and the name stuck.

I talked to the current owner of the S&S, Lisa "Sis" King, who has operated the restaurant for 20 years and knew the story of the Skeen Burger inside out. But she wasn't going to put the burger on her menu. She doubted the veracity of the applesauce-and-Ritz cracker recipe, chalking it up to rumor and local legend. And besides, she ultimately didn't want to be compared with something that was larger than life, which she clearly knew would happen.

Then it was off to the Thomasville Chamber of Commerce, where president Keith Tobin (who I had known years previously when he was an educator and coach and I was writing sports for The Dispatch) gave me a good quote about Skeen Burgers (also doubting the applesauce bit) and I was nearly ready to write a nice little 700-word story.

I also checked with Google, which burped up a couple of stories about Skeen Burgers in the 1970s (long after Dewey sold his business in 1966). I gleaned what pertinent information I could from those stories, and started writing.

Here's where the chase really gets good:

I wanted to get a picture of Dewey to give the story some depth, but there was nothing on the Internet, believe it or not. So I went to the Davidson County Museum, thinking maybe they had something from legendary Lexington photographer H. Lee Waters on file, but there was nothing there. So the museum directed me to Tonya Hensley of the genealogy department of the Lexington branch of the Davidson County library.

Dewey Skeen
 Tonya couldn't find a picture, but she found an excerpt written by former Thomasville Times editor Wint Capel for his 1991 book "A Recent History of Thomasville," where Skeen pretty much said his secret ingredient was using high quality meat and a little seasoning. Nothing about applesauce.

I contacted the Thomasville C of C again, asking them if they knew where I could get a picture of Dewey. They pointed me to P&G Antiques on Main Street in Thomasville because they thought the store might have a picture of Dewey I could use.

So Kim and I walked into P&G one Saturday, where we were greeted by co-owner Danny Ward. What? I knew Danny for years when he was a coach and athletic director at East Davidson. What's going on here? Between Keith and Danny, I was crossing paths with old friends and acquaintances once again. I told Danny what I was doing, and he began a search for a picture. He couldn't find one either, but he did have another potential contact for me: Vickie Leonard, who once was a waitress at Morning Glory. My radar array automatically engaged. A day or two later, Danny gave me Vickie's phone number, I made the call, and the story got a little longer.

Vickie, who was a waitress at Morning Glory for 10 years before opening her own restaurant with her husband, Mike, told me the applesauce and Ritz crackers story was a myth. I was noticing a serious trend here.

But still no picture of Dewey.

My last hope was the Thomasville branch of the county library, where I met Priscilla Oldaker in the genealogy department. I told her what I needed and Priscilla immediately went into I-can-do-this mode. She checked Ancestry.com. She checked the census. She found that Dewey had three children and she gave me their names: Leon, June and Charlesanna.

I went home and turned on my Google machine again. Leon and Jean had passed on after each lived long lives into their 90s, but Charlesanna, 86, was still around and living in Jamestown. I found her phone number, and gave it to Dispatch photographer Donnie Roberts, who made the call and set up the interview. A few days later, we were at her house for a photo shoot. She had five or six pictures of her father for us, and she emphatically gave me a little more information for the story (now up to 1,440 words): there was never any applesauce in Dewey's recipe.

I mention all of this because when a story comes together – when all the pieces mesh like magic – it's a wonderful feeling. But the process requires a lot of help, too. So big thank yous all around to Keith Tobin, Tonya Hensley, Sis King, Vickie Leonard, Danny Ward, Priscilla Oldaker and Charlesanna Skeen Marsh. You made this one of the most fun assignments I ever had in my 40-plus years of journalism.

•   •   • 

What do I think about the supposedly secret Skeen Burger recipe?

There are too many key people on the inside of this story who refute the notion that Dewey Skeen ever put applesauce and Ritz crackers in his hamburger mix. So if you think you have the secret recipe, you probably don't.

I never had a Skeen Burger made by Dewey. I came to North Carolina in 1976, 10 years after he sold his business. And Dewey died in 1992 at the age of 91, apparently having never written down the ingredients of his burger mix to pass on for posterity.

But what I think he did was use a high quality meat that he ground into hamburger and then seasoned with a dash of onion salt or garlic salt or Worcestershire sauce or something like that. His daughter, Charlesanna, said he personally liked applesauce, which he bought in bulk, stored at the Morning Glory, and ate out of the jar when he was hungry. Maybe somebody, perhaps a customer, spied the cartons of applesauce on the shelves, made a mental connection, and asked him how he made his hamburger mix. And maybe Dewey was clever enough to foster the growing "secret recipe" rumor because it was good for business.

I think Dewey was a pretty smart guy.

•   •   •

And one more thing about Dewey:

His humble little hamburger joint was successful enough to put his three children through college. The Skeen family moved to Thomasville in 1930 after previously living in Denton, and at times Dewey was a barber and then a restaurateur, running the Snow White Restaurant for several years before building and opening the Morning Glory in 1947.

But the Morning Glory was his gold mine. So maybe it's no surprise that Dewey's son, Leon, was a graduate of Thomasville High School, and then went on to N.C. State, where he majored in engineering. He worked for the Monsanto company in St. Louis before retiring and returning to High Point. He later became an adjunct professor at A&T University.

Dewey and Nona's first child, June, ended up going to Catawba College, and later received a Master's Degree from UNC Greensboro. She was a teacher at Page High School in Greensboro for 26 years before retiring.

And youngest daughter Charlesanna graduated from Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, majoring in furniture design, ultimately spending 40 years in the interior design business.

All this because of a hamburger that may or may not have had applesauce in it. I love this story. It's an American original. It's the great American success story.

It's a story for all of us.


6 comments:

  1. Thank you .. I had several of the Burgers and my Mom knew him and had the Apple Sauce recipe..so who knows.. He was a very clean, crisp looking and cleaned all the time, his wife wife wore a hair net and was a nurse I do think for a time and helped him also. I am not sure he would of told the daughters much about it or that they would of cared at the time...amazing how old his kids were and Im only 73 now and remember it well for years...he must of been an old man then.. as I recall. He always wore a white uniform fresh pressed with the paper White cafe chef hat..I think only of how crisp the burgers were never "sloppy" looking either...amazing..as if an inspector was coming in every hour. Best example of a chain that burger looks like his would be In and Out...others are juicy...he would get all of the grease out and the burgers.

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  2. I remember the grill and counters be cleaned and wiped very often while you were sitting on a stool watching him cook, press the burgers and scrape the grill. I don't recall him being very chatty with customers...seemed a very serious man.

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  3. Sorry for the long response for some reason that little Tin Building stood out in my mind and I even remember the Snow White...was cool also.

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  4. My mother taught at Fair Grove Elementary, and on Teacher Workdays, she and her fellow teachers would head up to the Morning Glory for burgers. If I was lucky, they took me, and I would order what I think was the #3 - a skeen burger with chili, mustard, and pickles. Between being allowed a backstage pass to the teachers’ conversation, and that burger, I felt pretty special. Such great memories.

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  5. Great hometown article, thanks so much!

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  6. Interesting article, but you don't have the rest of the story. My brother was the one who bought the Morning Glory from Dewey Skeen back in the 1960's. Feel free to contact me if you want more questions answered! However, you won't get the recipe, LOL!

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