This Midwestern State Fair Classic Has Pacific Northwest Roots

·6 min read
Pronto Pup at state fair
Pronto Pup at state fair

Back when I was an adolescent, summer break presented endless options: splashing in the river or community pool with family and friends, going to the public library just for the AC, or attending some big event such as the state fair. And as the relentless heat bore down on all the sweet, crunchy, salty snacks waiting to be purchased at the fair, there was one treat that was impossible to ignore: corn dogs.

These greasy little guys were a standout summer food. Aside from being a popular item at state fairs, they also make an appearance on many children’s menus at restaurants across the country. But where did this innovation come from, and how did the corn dog become such an iconic part of American culture? The answer depends on who you ask—and how you define a corn dog.

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How the corn dog came to be

There are several theories about who invented the corn dog. One theory purports that the late Sylvia Schur, a food innovator, columnist, and consumer brands consultant invented the corn dog on a stick phenomenon.

However, this claim is rather questionable as the only evidence I found is a 2016 Facebook post stating Schur as the inventor, referencing a book called Girls Can Do Anything by Caitlin Doyle. This post came directly from Firefly Books, Doyle’s publisher, making me question whether or not they consulted Schur’s obituary in the New York Times. The obituary gave no mention of her ever inventing a corn dog on a stick whatsoever.

Others say that Stanley Jenkins of Buffalo, New York, should be given the credit for inventing the corn dog, as he is the owner of a 1929 U.S. patent titled “Combined Dipping, Cooking, and Article Holding Apparatus.” The patent appears to be a contraption that gives one the ability to dip an item on a stick, slather it with cornmeal, and deep fry it.

Although Jenkins references “wieners” in the description of his patent, he also references a variety of other items that one can place on a stick and deep fry. Sadly, he never really made any money beyond the patent, as the idea of hot dogs on a stick didn’t really take off until the 1940s.

Finally, there are the Fletcher brothers of Texas, who in 1942 introduced the country to a dipped hot dog battered in cornmeal at the Texas State Fair. According to Taste Atlas, there remains a disagreement about the inventor of the corn dog.

The west coast’s claim to corn dog fame

Oregonians, however, beg to differ. The corn dog is a source of local pride, especially for the residents of a seaside town called Rockaway Beach. Along Highway 101, where the breeze meets the ocean, lies Pronto Pup, which claims to be the “Original Hot Dog on a Stick.” This Pronto Pup location (which opened in 2016) is a franchise-based corn dog business operated by Diane Langer, who bought the business with her husband in 2021.

“To my knowledge, the history of the Pronto Pup was created in Rockaway in the late 1930s, early ’40s, a little closer to town,” said Langer in a recent interview with local news station OPB, with the conviction that she has stepped into a treasure trove of local lore.

The story goes that on Labor Day in 1939, George Boyington, a reformed bootlegger in Oregon who ran a hot dog stand with his wife Vera, was facing a dilemma: He had an overabundance of stale buns. The solution? Create a special batter to wrap around the hot dog and fry the whole thing up. They worked on the recipe for several years and made their debut in Portland in 1941, and the rest is history. Or is it?

Pronto Pups arrive in the Midwest

It makes sense that the “hot dog on a stick” idea would become a local favorite. But the Boyingtons had a different idea. According to OPB, they trademarked the name Pronto Pup and began to franchise the business in 1942. Some of their earliest franchisees were folks from the Midwest, including the Karnis and Nelson families who resided in Chicago and Grand Haven, Michigan, respectively.

In the mid-1940s, a businessman from Minnesota named William Brede happened to be in Chicago. He was curious as to why there were lines out the door at Karnis’ location, so he got in line and tried a Pronto Pup—and he was enamored. With ties to the state fair board, he made it his mission to bring these corn dogs to the Minnesota State Fair.

But the Karnis family was skeptical at first. After all, their business was going well, and they’d already had offers from others who wanted them to expand their business. It was only after Brede offered to match the money they’d make in a year that the Karnis finally agreed. Pronto Pups debuted at the Minnesota State Fair in 1947.

Over time, this family operation continued to provide food to state fairs. These days, Minnesotans love Pronto Pups, so much that the state has officially recognized the dog as a product of cultural significance.

Meanwhile, the Boyingtons’ original Otis and Rockaway Beach locations in Oregon went through several iterations of ownership. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, local Pronto Pup owners put their stands and trailers up for sale. Then the Boyingtons’ attorney purchased Pronto Pup and tried to get the batter into local grocery stores until the packaging company used by the brand went out of business.

As for the “original” Pronto Pup locations? The one in Otis, Oregon is now a pizzeria and the Rockaway Beach location was purchased by a Portland attorney in 2016, later sold to the Langers in 2021.

Corn dogs forever

There’s an ongoing debate about what makes Pronto Pups different than, say, a regular corn dog. The Christian Science Monitor described it in 1945 as a “special type of dough-mix that looks like waffle batter.” But suffice it to say that the Pronto Pup is just one beloved subset of the corn dog’s overall dominance. NW Travel magazine likens it to the process rather than the look: “If you aren’t using authentic Pronto Pup mix, hand dipping and deep frying them, they aren’t Pronto Pups,” they wrote.

Both versions contain cornmeal, but the main difference is that corn dogs are sweeter than Pronto Pups. So there you have it. A hot dog dipped in a stick and cornmeal batter then deep-fried is considered a corn dog.

The Karnis family’s Pronto Pups franchise is now a full-blown operation in its own right. Every year, they sell hundreds of thousands of “Pups” at the state fair. According MPR News, “The Karnis family sold 106,000 Pronto Pups that first year [1947], and they haven’t missed a state fair since.”

Regardless of who “invented” the corn dog, we can all agree that the idea of a fried batter surrounding a hot dog on a stick took off nationwide for good reason. The unmistakable crunch of a corn dog as you bite into it is one of the most satisfying culinary experiences around, followed, of course, by the sweet and fluffy taste of cotton candy in your mouth.