It was a dilly

Dilly-Wagon drive-ins, which looked like oversize prairie schooners, were certainly eye-catching enough in the 1960s but their main attraction was the “It’s a Dilly” sauce served on burgers and hot dogs. People still remember it longingly. I wish somebody would describe it. Was it a mayonnaise-based sauce with dill in it like that used with fish? What made it hot?

The sauce was created by Charles Weinstein who experimented with it in his Potsdam NY kitchen after an illness prevented him from continuing with his former business, selling apparel. The sauce, which was guaranteed to “perk up … just about any meat or meat dish,” was also sold in food stores, with three degrees of hotness, Pleasing, Extra, and Triple “for those who like a sauce that sizzles.”

In February of 1961 Charles applied for a patent for the design of his drive-in structure [see illustrations]. In the early 1960s local and regional drive-ins were still popular, not yet squeezed out by national fast-food franchises. Why he chose a Conestoga wagon style is unknown, but as was true of all roadside businesses, being able to catch the eye of passing motorists was critical.

Later in 1961 an advertisement appeared in the South Burlington High School yearbook for a Dilly-Wagon drive-in at 1907 Williston Road. That same year Charles ran an ad in the Oneonta NY paper saying that the drive-ins cost only $12,750, could be opened in three short weeks, and were ideal for a college town. By August there were Dilly Wagons not only in Burlington but in Rutland VT and in Potsdam NY, and he was hoping to place more in the Lake George area.

Strangely, by summer 1962 the price of a Dilly Wagon had inexplicably jumped up to $20,000, according to a franchise advertisement that appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

Exactly how many Dilly-Wagons were franchised, and where, is unknown. I’ve been able to locate one in New Hartford NY and one as far away as Sheboygan WI. The Wisconsin Dilly-Wagon, purchased in 1963, was run in conjunction with a Dairy Queen stand. There was also a Dilly Bar operated by Charles Weinstein and a partner on Curry Road in Schenectady NY (pictured, 1966). Curiously, this operation, which was not in the form of a covered wagon, specialized not just in burgers and hot dogs but also Chinese egg rolls, Southern fried chicken, and “dilly root beer,” whatever that might be.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

37 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

37 responses to “It was a dilly

  1. Anonymous

    My parents Robert and Elizabeth Degenhardt owned the Dilly Wagon just north of Rutland, VT. Many happy memory of that place! Nice to read these posts!,

  2. Bridget

    I’m excited to finally be able to find someplace on the internet regarding the subject of the Dilly-Wagon! About 15 years ago, in Vermont, I bought a huge, wood, “Dilly-Wagon” sign in the shape of a covered wagon. It’s says “Dilly-Wagon” across the top and underneath it says “Mighty Good Eats”. And the 1961 copyright info. below in small letters.
    I fell in love with the sign and have always wanted more info. on the business, so I am happy to know there are so many folks out there that experienced it!

  3. Homer Mitchell

    I think it would be great if the Potsdam Chamber of Commerce would offer a “It’s a Dilly Recipe Contest” at their next Summer Festival (too late for 2014). Entrants would offer their recipe concoctions at a cooperating hot dog/hamburger concession with judging by a panel of local chefs and a popular vote. The winner’s recipe could be marketed with assistance from the Chamber, the Entrepreneur program students and staff at Clarkson and/or SUNY Potsdam.

  4. Jon Hanson

    It is great to hear everyone talk about the Dilly Wagon. My mom used to stop at the Dilly Wagon on the Williston road in Burlington with 6 or 8 of us kids in the station wagon. It was sometime in 1959 or 1960. I was about 10 yrs old. The Dilly sauce was outstanding…#1, #2 or #3 sauce with #3 the hottest and the best, of course. Diane Lalonde is right, it was not a mayonnaise sauce…it was a tomato based relish with I think chopped onions, pickles and peppers. It was very tangy and had a distinct flavor that I have never had elsewhere…definitely unique and really good. As kids, we loved the big covered wagon.

  5. It appears that the good folks at the Potsdam Public Museum also have an interest in tracking down the recipe for the It’s-A-Dilly sauce. See their notice at potsdampublic museum.org/post/96/it-s-a-dilly and the accompanying link to the North Country Now web newspaper.

  6. Some have commented that they know people and or their kids who worked and made the dilly sauce…can you guys contact them and see what was in it?

  7. Gordon Allen

    I also was a student a CCT and lived in the dorms across from the Dilly Wagon. I’ve been waiting 70 years for this discussion. We have got to find that recipe or one that comes close. I’ve never been able to figure out why no one capitalized on this product. Nothing has ever tasted as good. I just know it would sell today.

    • I have searched newspapers and found nothing. I doubt it was ever published. I think that finding the recipe would involve locating someone who worked at one of the Dilly Wagons.

  8. Here’s a recipe suggestion sent by Isis Aquarian:
    I remember tracking down this sauce for french fries and hamburgers. It might be it or at least close but whatever it is darn good.
    One part ketchup, two parts mayonnaise. Spike with any of the below to your taste: salt, garlic, relish, pickle juice — some have added horseradish and other spices. xo isis

    • You could put some dill, and hot sauce and or some crushed tomatoes? According to what I have read that people remember being in it, hopefully someone will contact the people they know that made sauce who worked there and give us a reply.

  9. BarbaraKupka

    Pretty sure we ate this kind of sauce on a burger in Youngstown, NY — don’t remember the name of the restaurant, it was about 10 yrs ago.

  10. Anonymous

    We’ve found a sauce here in Rochester, Ny. that is very similar to “It’s a Dilly” sauce from Potsdam Ny. The sauce is sold in our local grocery store called Wegmans. Its called Piccadilli sauce and it has a little bit of a kick. We love it on Hamburgs or Hotdogs. It is probably as close as we’re going to get to Dilly Sauce. Many people claim to have the recipe but I’ve never seen one posted.

  11. I was born in the town of Potsdam in 1935; and can not remember seeing this ” It’s -A-Dilly Wagon ” during the years I resided there. The name sounds familiar to me, tho. Now live in Sherman, Tx.
    Bernie Gonyea

  12. Dave Atkinson

    I lived in the CCT Dorm [59-61] across Rt 11, room nearest the Dilly Wagon, for 2 school years. What temptation! I remember a few times sitting at a table with burgers at 11:45 PM Friday nights waiting for the clock to hit midnight so my Catholic friends would not eat meat on Friday. This could be another Dinosaur BBQ chain today.

  13. I remember The Dilly Wagon across from Clarkson back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Mary Fiacco made up the sauce and her kids worked there. It was a covered wagon.

    • Homer Mitchell, an old Ogdensburger.

      If Mary created that recipe, no wonder it was good. I remember in 1991 going to Fiacco’s. Business had slowed down by then, and the bar crowd had disappeared, but there was Mary in the kitchen stirring her fabulous spaghetti sauce and cooking pasta. She could hardly walk by then and had to hold onto counters and tables as she moved about. But there she was, every night.

  14. Anonymous

    I remember the Dilly Wagon in Potsdam. Mary Fiacco made up the sauce and her kids ran the wagon, in the 60’s.

  15. Bonnie Fenner

    I am 68 yrs. old now and I lived in Parishville. Some of my fondest memories are of driving from Parishville to Potsdam for a mouth watering Dilly Burger. It was a tomato based sauce and agree with Diane Lalonde. It was like a relish but had 3 degrees of hotness. It was awesome. I’d go even further today to find one. I can taste it.

  16. nlpnt

    One of the wagons still stood along US 7 somewhere between Middlebury and Rutland.as late as the ’90s. It was last used as the office for a mobile home dealership.

  17. Homer Mitchell

    I worked the summer of 1957 at Frank Ruggieri’s custard stand at the turn-off to the Pythian beach just outside Ogdensburg. We served It’s a Dilly sauce on burgers and dogs and sold bottles of it. I’ll never forget the taste. Sure would like to find the recipe.

  18. Anonymous

    Went to St. Lawrence(62-67), in Canton, about 12 miles west of Potsdam. The favorite place to eat with-out-question was the Dilly Wagon. My beer consuming acquaintances and I would make it the last stop after an evening on the town. Eating in a car, normally we would commence with a couple of the ‘medium’ sauced jobs that were rip-snorters.

    Then, feeling braver, we would take dares on who could handle how many of the ‘big dudes.’ We loved’em that night, but the next day was pure hell.

    Like others have said here, I’d pay good money for the recipe. Boy, were they good.

  19. I still remember the Dilly Wagon in Potsdam, NY. It was right across the road from the dorms of Clarkson College (now University) which I attended from 1962-66. The dilly sauce came in 3 flavors – mild, medium and HOT. I’ve been missing their incredible taste for the last 50 years.

    • As somebody who never tasted Dilly sauce, I am really, really curious about what it tasted like!

    • Homer Mitchell, an old Ogdensburger.

      I miss that sauce, too. I’ve tried to find substitutes, but any tomato, pepper, and onion based relish I try today has way too much sugar and doesn’t come close. Absolutely nothing beat a hot dog with Dilly Sauce and a squirt of mustard.

  20. Elizabeth

    Me too…if anyone has one to share please do so.

    • Diane Lalonde

      It was not a mayo based sauce. If memory serves, I think it was tomato based, but not a salsa. I’d pay for the recipe.

  21. Diane Lalonde

    It was a tomato, onion, pepper based relish, not sweet, but like the dice in a pepper relish. I sure miss it. I was 17 when I used to frequent the Dilly Wagon, 63 now.

  22. Christine Terenzini Kelley

    I sure do miss “The Dilly Wagon” just north of Rutland, Vermont!!!~The “Dilly Sauce” was awesome and no one could ever copy it~~Thanks for finding this “Blast From My Past” ~Tom Cook~it was a “Dilly”!!!~

  23. Jim Reynolds

    I grew up in Williston about a mile from the Dilly Wagon in South Burlington, Vermont. My mother worked there as a car-hop one summer in the late 60’s. The wagon has been gone for at least 40 years. I would love to see a picture of it.

  24. I see a great opportunity for yet another food truck — and I’d sure like to try a triple hot version of the sauce.

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