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Oral Histories

The SFA oral history program documents life stories from the American South. Collecting these stories, we honor the people whose labor defines the region. If you would like to contribute to SFA’s oral history collections, please send your ideas for oral history along with your CV or Resume and a portfolio of prior oral history work to

< Back to Oral History project: A Hamburger by Any Other Name


Mary Lawson

Willie Burgers

It’s believed that Willie Burgers started life as Johnny’s Hamburgers in 1926, owned by John Penn. Johnny’s Hamburgers changed hands a few times, and was known as Prader’s for a while. In 1995 Willis Sapp, a Hartselle resident, purchased the restaurant and changed the name to Willie Burgers because “Willis Burgers” never really caught on with his customers.

Mary Lawson grew up in Tompkinsville, Kentucky and moved to Indianapolis with her family when she was eleven years old. She married her husband, Frank, and after he worked for the Chrysler plant in Indianapolis for decades, the couple moved to Madison, Alabama. They eventually settled in Hartselle.


Ms. Lawson began dropping by Willie Burgers as an antidote to the loneliness she felt in a new place far away from her family. When one of the regular waitresses at Willie’s became pregnant, Mr. Sapp hired Ms. Lawson to help out mixing up the burgers and waiting on customers. Eventually he sold the business to his son Tony, who became partners with Ms. Lawson. She purchased Willie Burgers from Tony Sapp in 1996 after Mr. Willie Sapp passed away.

Ms. Lawson says her customers are like family to her and that she keeps the business going for them, not just herself. She’s decorated the restaurant with personal antiques and knick-knacks she’s brought from her own house because she says she’s at the restaurant most of the time and wants to create a comfortable space for her customers to feel at home.

Date of interview:

Sara Wood

Sara Wood

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The Southern Foodways Alliance drives a more progressive future by leading conversations that challenge existing constructs, shape perspectives, and foster meaningful discussions. We reconsider the past with research, scrutiny, and documentation.


Alex Raij Txikito

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