Monday, May 11, 2009

Ferrell's Hamburgers

Doesn't everyone have that childhood place that you never forget? The one that, even after you move far away, you return to as an adult, taking your children. The one you can't resist telling someone who works there that "I used to come here as a child". I have that place. It's called Ferrell's Hamburgers and it is located on Main Street in Hopkinsville, Kentucky where my Mom grew up.

Ferrell's opened in 1929 and has become an icon in Hopkinsville. It is tiny, not much bigger than most average sized home kitchens. As you walk in the door, you see the always sizzling grill to the left (in the photo, my brother is standing in front of the window above the grill), a counter with 7 stools, and a standing area. The stools spin and they are covered in green shiny vinyl. Behind the counter, there are some glass covered shelves for the dishes, a small cooler, a menu board, and just enough space for one, maybe two people to walk back and forth to take orders and check on the customers.

There is not a lot to order at Ferrell's and it's cheap. The menu is as follows: Hamburger, Cheesburger, Double Hamburger, Double Cheesburger, Hot Dog, Bag of Chips, Chili (small or large), pecan pie, coffee, canned soda. Hamburgers are $1.45 and cheesburgers are $1.75. They also serve breakfast - two eggs, choice of bacon, ham, or sausage, toast and coffee for $3.50!

But the experience is what is fascinating. When you sit down on one of those shiny green vinyl stools (and you MUST give it a spin, I don't care how old you are) you see the cook with her spatula and container piled high with balls of hamburger meat. Beside her sits piles of buns, still in the plastic bags they came in. When you order your burger, she takes one of the balls, flips it onto board and starts slapping it with the spatula until it is cracker thin. Then she scoops it with the spatula and flips it onto the sizzling grill. She knows exactly how long to wait and then she flips it to the other side, puts the onions and pickles on top, then adds the top of the bun. Magically, after the alloted time, she holds the top bun, slides the spatula under it all and transfers everything to the waiting bottom of the bun, sitting on a piece of wax paper. The wax paper with this delight is then unceremoniously transferred to the counter in front of you as your mouth waters. Grab you some napkins.

If you order something that requires a dish, like a piece of pecan pie or chili, it will come on dishes that had to have been in use when they opened in 1929. The dishes are small, white, and have those dark green rings around the rim like every diner would have used back then.

I can remember being very small and looking over the top of the counter, watching the grill lady slap those burgers and flip them onto the grill. I thought everybody made burgers like that. I also remember a life lesson learned at Ferrell's. My Dad was in Vietnam, we were staying with my grandparents, and it was during the 60's when segregation was still in place. My mom and I were downtown shopping and went into Ferrell's to get a burger. The stools were full and people were standing and waiting or ordering theirs to go. I really wanted to sit on one of the spinning stools but Mom wanted to get our order to go.

I saw the room in the back. It was dark but people were standing back there and there were a couple of tables. "Why can't we sit back there?" I asked. My mom said we couldn't. "Why not?" And she quietly explained "That's where the negroes eat". I didn't understand. Why wouldn't they eat out there on those very cool shiny spinning stools? And why could we not eat back there with them? I would not leave it alone. Mom got our order, I'm sure wishing the whole time I would shut up, and we left. When we got to the car, Mom explained segregation. She agreed that it didn't make any sense. She said she didn't understand why people couldn't just eat together but that some people believed they shouldn't. She said it was sad. I agreed.

Happily, that didn't last and Ferrell's is beloved by all who grew up in Hopkinsville or those who just visit family there. When Mom died, all my siblings were together, at the same time, at my parent's house for the first time in about 8 years. After a few days, we all drove out to my grandparent's farm in Hopkinsville to see my aunt. After we left the farm, we had to go to Ferrell's. I wondered how long it would take one of us to say "I used to come here as a kid" to one of the people behind the counter.

Instead, a man sitting next to us on one of the stools asked if we were from Hopkinsville. One of us said no. He said he lived in Chicago but was from Hopkinsville and visited Ferrell's whenever he was in town. We explained where we all lived, how we all came to be there, that our Mom had passed away, that we had all loved Ferrell's and had to make a visit. He asked who our mother was, we told him, and he said they went to high school together. He knew our aunt and our grandparents.

It was like we were all meant to be there, like family, in that little greasy diner with the shiny green vinyl stools.


Anonymous said...

Last trip I took to Ferrell's I did in a rather modern way. Instead of sitting down at the counter and having a bite to eat, I phoned the order in and picked it up. Not only did I get hot steamy onions, pickles, and cheeseburgers on a soft bun, but was treated to another old fashioned way of life....the adding of my total on my bag. Sat in the car and looked at those numbers a moment or two and thought it went the way that the lovely store across the street, Cayce Yost did...gone but not forgotten! Hope you get a chance to stop back through Hoptown and that you find the burgers are still as fine as the people.

Anonymous said...

Grew up on Ferrell's burgers, as my parents did. Moved away and would sometimes freeze em to take back to Texas. Had to devise my own: 1/2 lean beef or turkey, and half reduced fat Jimmy Dean sausage...POM (like they write on their bags!) Heavy on the pepper. A taste of home that's a little healthier and easier to get living away!

Anonymous said...

Ahh. Ferrells and Woodshed. Hopkinsville Landmarks.

Born and Raised in Hopkinsville, KY.

KingT said...

This is the type pf spot I will drive to from Chicago. I have aroad trip planned for spring and cant wait to get here. Thanks.

Tony said...

I grew up in Princeton, and ate at the ones in Hoptown, Cadiz and Madisonville. I've lived in seveal places, and there is NO place that anything close to a good Ferrel-Burger!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

My cousin, J. Edward Smith, took me to Ferrell's when I was 12 in 1949 and instructed the counterman to serve me all the hamburgers that I cared to eat. When Cousin Edward returned an hour later, I had eaten six! An unforgettable memory. -Leadley Trice

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Hopkinsville during the 60's as well. The part of this story pertaining to segregation sounds like an exaggeration. I remember eating in the back room which was referred to here. I don't remember it being a black's only section. I can remember eating in that back room as early as 1967 and I am a white boy for sure. I would have been 12 years old at the time. I'm sure there probably was a time when this could have been true. But, it wasn't during the 60's.

Tere said...

I would not call my memory an exaggeration. It is the way I, very young at the time, remember the conversation and the time period. That conversation had a huge impact on my life. At the time that would have occurred, it may not have been a blacks only section but it used to be and my mother may have assumed it still was as we had just come back from several years in Germany. I was not old enough to understand. It is not an indictment of Ferrell's or anyone there. This post was simply about Ferrell's, a place that I love and part of my childhood.

Lib Stewart said...

I was born in 1951 and grew up in Hoptown. Your mom's memories are undoubtably correct, but earlier than the 60's. The back of Ferrells was a mystery until you landed there - I just remember it as overflow. I love that Ferrells is still there. I do miss Cayce-Yost, Arnold's, Keaches, Carother's and Dollar Brothers. One of those hamburgers would sure taste good now.

Tere said...

I remember Cayce-Yost too. My grandmother shopped there all the time. And yes, a burger would be so good right now.

Billy Siniard said...

It's so sad that both of the Ferrells have passed away...I really hope the place can survive because there really is NOTHING like a good ole Ferrell's burger.

Rest in Peace David and Cecil.

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Anonymous said...

While in Hopkinsville (for the first time) for the Solar Eclipse (8/21/17) path of totality, we arrived in Hoptown at 6:00am and stopped in at Ferrell's for breakfast. Luckily a couple of those shiny green vinyl stools were available. The whole experience was a delight and now a treasured memory. We ordered their special breakfast (eggs, bacon, toast) - cooked just like you would at home. Within minutes the place was packed and a line had formed out the door. The three people working were amazing. Without looking rushed they went about their business - taking orders and serving customers. Waiting for our order became part of the charm. So many people from so many different places and no one minded the wait. Thank you Ferrell's for the great experience.