OPINION

There was a time when ‘hot dogs’ ruled in Iowa

Staff Writer
Story City Herald

—by Bill Haglund

The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held annually at Coney Island (how appropriate) in New York draws lots of attention.

However, before I even heard of Nathan’s contest in New York, I knew first hand of a similar-sounding contest of over-eating held in Montgomery, Alabama.

Bob Harmon was a promoter’s promoter. Any type of event he could stage that would ultimately put dollar bills in his pocket was always just an advertisement away.

Bob Harmon owned Bob’s Dog House (or some similar-sounding name) in Montgomery. It was a small converted trailer house. Patrons would enter on one end, move down a long narrow path assembling hot dogs to their particular taste, with any number of available condiments, ending up finally at the pay window before exiting the small building and dining outside at an array of tables, all of them well shaded from the hot south Alabama sun.

But, it wasn’t hot dogs that first brought Harmon into my life. No, it was automobile racing.

Harmon was the promoter of the very fast, high-banked asphalt oval at the fairgrounds in Nashville, Tenn. Not only did he operate the track and hold weekly races there, it was once the scene of NASCAR’s top tier, then known as the “Grand National” series.

Nashville was a dangerous track. Turn one was a “blind” turn – drivers, racing at break-neck speed entered the turn without being able to see into the turn. That often led to massive pile-ups and, ultimately, led to the track being taken off the national circuit.

Because of Harmon’s racing endeavors (he also later formed a racing “association” for southern drivers and promoted races at asphalt tracks all over the south) our lives came together during the annual Race Promoters Workshops, a series of meetings held annually the first weekend of December in Reno, Nevada, and in February at an event in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Bob liked racing, but he liked his hot dogs just as much, if not more. His Dog House did a thriving noon business as Montgomery folks flocked to his hot dog stand for a quick noon lunch.

One of his greatest ideas was an annual “World’s Championship Hot Dog Eating Contest,” held in an open area near his Dog House.

It was because of an association with Harmon through racing that a group of Iowans decided more than 35 years ago to hold the “Iowa Championship Hot Dog Eating Contest.” One of the prizes for the winner of the Iowa contest was entry into Harmon’s World Championship contest a couple months later.

The stage was set. The Benton County Fairgrounds in Vinton was the scene.

The pre-contest hype actually spread across the state. A leading newspaper columnist of the day, whose name happened to be Chuck, took issue with one of the rules which was that an entrant would be disqualified in the event he up-chucked during the contest.

He said that everyone named Chuck hated the term “up-chuck” which may or may not be true, but it certainly added to the pre-contest excitement

The day of over-eating finally arrived. A dozen-or-so contestants arrived from quite a few Iowa locations, many of them showing the girth of a person who may often over-indulge in hot dogs.

The contest, scheduled for a one-hour time limit, began at 1 p.m. The winner, quite naturally, would be the person who could eat the most hot dogs in that hour time. The prize - $1,000.

One by one, contestants dropped out. Several of them were eliminated because they couldn’t keep their meal down. Each time that happened, at least one other contestant would also find himself disqualified. No, it wasn’t a pleasant site that afternoon.

In the end, however, a local man named Harold Cassens was the winner, downing 27 hot dogs in the 60-minute duration of the contest. His prize not only was $1,000, but also an entry into the World’s Championship contest in Birmingham, Alabama.

For that occasion, the local promoters of the contest, the Iowa winner and his family, all boarded a motor home for the 20-hour trip to southern Alabama.

The Iowa entrant finished third in that contest. The winner, a 150-pound man, downed 33 hot dogs in an hour. Those gathered to watch the festivities were entertained by a blue grass band that played throughout, while many local “cloggers” took to the dance “floor” for more entertainment, especially from a small group of Iowa interlopers.

Bob Harmon’s gone now. His World Championship Hot Dog Eating contest is gone, too.

But, every year when Nathan’s contest rolls round at Coney Island I can’t help but remember a day more than 35 years ago when a bunch of Iowans also gathered to watch a person eat as many hot dogs, buns and all, in an hour.

Oh, what fun!

Bill Haglund is a retired staff writer for the Boone News-Republican and the Dallas County News. He can be reached at bhaglund13@msn.com