Do you remember…Lee’s Hickory Bar-B-Q?
Before it was destroyed in a tornado, Lee Birmingham’s BBQ joint was the very definition of “lip-smacking BBQ”
There is BBQ and then there is BBQ! Lee Birmingham’s BBQ was the BEST. Lee Birmingham was a master of BBQ and the quintessential example of entrepreneurship. After working at Carl’s Pig Stand for a brief period of time, Lee had a “falling out with the owner in the kitchen,” according to friend and employee, Lewis Bruner.
So in 1947, Lee rented a small building on Hickory Street next to the railroad tracks to open “Lee’s Hickory BBQ.” When people found out that he was no longer at the Pig Stand and had gone out on his own, they flocked to his fledgling business to enjoy the “lip-smacking BBQ.”
After several years there, Lee left that building for reasons unknown and started cooking from his backyard at 507 E. Hobson. He built a horseshoe-shaped fire pit out of brick, stone, and lined it with concrete, put a grate on top, and used a piece of metal as a roof to keep out the rain. Lewis Bruner remembers sitting in Lee’s black 1947 Pontiac and selling BBQ from the car. Lee and Lewis would take the meat right off the fire, wrap it up in wax paper, then newspaper, and sell the steaming meat to the eagerly waiting customers lined up in the alley behind the house.
Lee used only hickory wood, the finest meat, and his secret BBQ sauce, which remains in the Bruner family today. Lewis and Lee would go to the back of Wickham’s Packing Company to pick out choice cuts of meat. Roy Wickham was Lee’s best customer.
Sometime around 1952, Lee built a building at 411 E. Hobson, which is the site of OGE’s service facility, across from the police station. After enjoying much success, Lee, being the consummate entrepreneur decided to open a second location on Johnson Street. This building was much larger and even accommodated dancing.
Lewis Bruner went down to the Johnson St. location during lunch to work the school lunch crowd, and then returned after school to work again. Mr. Bruner lamented that he did not have much time for extracurricular activities, but he was never bored.
I remember going with my father to pick up BBQ at the Johnson Street location. After closing the store, Dad and I often stopped by Lee’s place to bring home BBQ for dinner. The memories of the savory smell of the hickory-smoked BBQ in the pit and Lee’s smiling face remain with me to this day.
Lee Birmingham had both the Hobson St. and the Johnson St. locations in operation at the same time. He planned a third location on Line Street, but sadly, the May 5, 1960 tornado ended those plans. Lewis had ended his shift and had gone across the street to play pool. Around 6 p.m., Lewis heard a sound he thought was a freight train. He thought a train had jumped the tracks nearby. The tornado took the second story off the building, but Lewis and the other occupants who had taken shelter under the pool table, survived the deadly storm, unscathed.
Lewis looked across the street and saw that Lee’s BBQ building was “gone.” He and others rushed across the street. Lee Birmingham was buried under a pile of rubble that had been a wall, underneath a table. They took him to Bartlett Memorial Hospital (now St. John Sapulpa) in Lee’s 1956 Ford station wagon. Tragically, Lee did not survive.
Lee bequeathed the Johnson St. property to Lewis Bruner, who later donated that land to the City of Sapulpa to build McGoy Park.
Historical Note: The F5 tornado that destroyed Lee’s Bar-B-Q started south of Shawnee, headed Northeast through several countries. A thousand people were left homeless and three people were killed in Sapulpa during that tornado. There was also minor damage to the west side of town. I remember watching that tornado, from our house on w. McKinley Ave. It was not black, rather, it had an eerie, white luminosity. It is a sight I will never forget.
About the Author
Long-time Sapulpa resident, Charles Betzler, followed his father, Charlie, into the radio and TV repair business. At age 9, he fixed his first broken radio and his first love is vintage audio equipment. In his 50 + years of technical work, graduation from OSUIT, and years of Continuing Education, Charles, in his capacity as Emergency Management Director of nearby city, designed the Emergency Operations Center, and the radio-activation system for the sirens. In his long career, he has repaired every type of consumer electronics from black-and-white TVs to the latest lap-top.