"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Let's hear it for the permanent things, or at least those things designed before anybody came up with the hateful idea of "planned obsolescence." Zippo lighter? Great-Grandpa could carry one through The War, pass it on to his kid, who could pass it on to his kid, who could still be lighting stuff on fire with it in 2012. Case Knife? As long as you wipe the apple juice off the blade, run it over a whetstone every once in awhile and don't misplace it, it'll be with you to the Gates of Hades and back.
There's a product like that here in Little Rock, and it's plugged directly into the heart of summer: the Portable Kitchen grill. If this sounds like an advertisement, it kinda is, though not of the paid variety. Call it more the barbaric yawp of an outdoor grilling aficionado who has had the bottom rust out of more cheapo charcoal grills that I'd care to remember.
Portable Kitchen grills have a long history, with most of it woven through Little Rock.
The Portable Kitchen grill was first dreamed up in Texas in 1952 by an inventor named Milton Meigs. With a domed cooking chamber made from thick, rustproof cast aluminum, a removable top, clever cast-in vents and a hinged cooking surface that allows the grill to be used as either a charcoal grill or a smoker, Meigs' brainchild was soon a minor hit, selling several thousand examples.
After manufacturing grills in Tyler, Texas, all through the 1950s, the company was sold to Little Rock businessman Lewis Hamlin in 1960, with Hamlin moving operations to an old streetcar barn at 1000 North St. near downtown. Hamlin eventually got a contract to provide Portable Kitchen grills to U.S. military post exchanges. In addition to sales in the United States, Hamlin shipped over 22,000 grills — each with the PK logo and "Little Rock, Arkansas" cast into the top — to military PXs all over the world, including around 9,000 grills shipped to Southeast Asia, where they fed soldiers at operating bases during the Vietnam War. As troops who bought the grills on base mustered out of the service, PK grills were scattered to backyards all over America.
Other models of the PK Grill came and went — including a more rectangular example and a round "duchess" model — but in 1972, two years after a fire that gutted Hamlin's operation in Little Rock, Hamlin stopped manufacturing Portable Kitchen grills. The company was later sold, and the last original Portable Kitchen grill was manufactured in the mid-1970s.
That might have been all she wrote, but sometimes a good idea gets a second chance. Enter Little Rock attorney Paul James and his sister Martha James. Back when he was a young man fresh out of law school, Paul James had a lawyer friend named H.W. "Sonny" Dillahunty — then the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, who would later become a Pulaski County Chancery judge — who owned an old, treasured Portable Kitchen grill.
"I was a single guy, and I'd go to his house after work and he'd cook," James recalled. "I found one at a garage sale, and I bought it." (James still has Dillahunty's old grill in the corner of his warehouse, by the way: Army green, ugly as sin, and sooted with more than a few good smokes.) Dillahunty taught James how to smoke brisket and pork butt on the grill. A stamped-steel grill, James said, just doesn't work as well.
"It's going to absorb rather than reflect heat," he said. "When you wrap up something in the oven to cook it, what do you wrap it in? Aluminum foil."
James was so impressed by how well the Portable Kitchen grill worked that when he came into the means to do it, he decided to revive the brand. After buying the "Portable Kitchen" name from Char-Broil and researching the by-then-expired patent on the original design, he collected up as many of the old castings as he could find, contracted with an engineer (who happened to have worked on some of the original Portable Kitchen models) and had molds made. Soon after, his sister Martha signed on to run the business, and they began manufacturing new PK grills from all American-made parts in 1998.
"The castings are made in Gerard, Kan.," Martha said. "The cart is made in Missouri. The grids and grates are made in Chicago." The stamped aluminum tray is made by the original supplier in Jacksonville. The parts are all finished, assembled and boxed in warehouse space just across the street from Heifer Project International headquarters in East Little Rock. They sell about 1,500 a year, mostly through amazon.com, their website at www.pkgrills.com, and specialty hardware stores like Kraftco and Fuller & Sons.
While the $279 retail price might sound expensive for a grill with a 301-square-inch cooking surface, you get what you pay for — an old saw that's proven by the daily round of calls PK gets seeking parts for old grills, some of them dating all the way back to the 1950s. Martha James said that since the day they opened for business, their phone has rung off the hook with calls from people seeking parts to revive their father or grandfather's Portable Kitchen grill. Before the rise of the Internet, she said, many of the callers found them because of the "Little Rock" cast into the lid.
"A woman called the other day and said, 'I got mine in 1967.' You just don't think that it's going to last, that people are going to have them that long. But people call who've had them 40 or 50 years. They're always like: 'You're never going to believe this!' "
Today, Martha James said PK's business is split about evenly between orders for new grills and parts — carts, cooking and charcoal grates, and covers, all of which can be ordered from the company website.
Paul James said the next step for the modern incarnation of PK Grills is a plan to put a larger size grill into production, with around 420 square inches of cooking area. They hope to have it in the works by the end of this year. Like the classic Portable Kitchen grill they currently make, it will be based on an old Portable Kitchen design. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
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