On the heels of Lititz winning the coveted title of America’s Coolest Small Town in an online contest conducted by Budget Travel in 2013, Columbia was designated as one of the 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014 by Smithsonian magazine. I have long considered Lancaster County to be a pretty great place to live, but when a respected outside source validates this belief, there’s reason to celebrate.
As Lititz did last year, Columbia has planned many events to commemorate this recognition. One curious happening is the “Shifter Showdown,” and it’s the history behind this event that initially caught my interest.
Until now, I would have guessed that a shifter is the handle in a manual transmission car. Apparently though, everyone in Columbia knows better: the Shifter is really a sandwich. Moreover, to be considered the real deal, the Shifter must be made in a precise way.
The Shifter originated in the 1930s when Columbia was a bustling railroad town. According to John “Tink” Lutz, the sandwich was created by the late George “Cork” Lutz and Charles “Todder” Roberts.
Back in the day, small steam engines, called shifters, moved the railroad cars around the yard to get them in the correct position for transport. If a wreck occurred on the railroad, three or four work cars would be sent to the area to clean up the mess. To feed their crews, railroad bosses would go to the Columbia hotels where they would order a gallon of coffee at one hotel, a gallon of soup at another, and sandwiches (usually ham and cheese) at yet another hotel.
Todder had a restaurant in the front room of his home on the 400 block of Cherry Street, and Cork ran the Lutz Hotel (or Lower Hotel as it was sometimes called) around the corner on South Fifth Street. Todder got so sick and tired of making plain ham and cheese sandwiches that he told Cork they had to come up with something more nutritious. To that end, they sliced freshly baked white bread, layered on ham that they had roasted and carved, added Swiss cheese sliced from a wheel, put crisp lettuce and then fresh tomato on top. Dill pickle slices, mayonnaise and another slice of white bread completed the package—in that exact order. If the order of the ingredients was changed, it wasn’t a Shifter.
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Though any claims of authenticity would surely be negated by my use of sweet pickles, doing so was the perfect excuse to showcase a homemade pickle recipe that has developed a surprisingly loyal following among my family and friends. It also made my version of the sandwich Shifter-Showdown worthy. And though I took a couple of liberties, also using whole grain bread, I did maintain the proper order.
As one of the many events planned in a yearlong celebration of the Smithsonian honor, the “Shifter Showdown” is scheduled for Saturday, September 13th. Categories will include most authentic, best variation, best modern version, and the largest. The Showdown will be held at the Columbia Farmers Market on South Third Street in Columbia from 11:00 am until 2:00 pm. Applications are available at the Market House or at the Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. Prizes will be awarded for the best in each category for both amateurs and professionals.
A special thank you goes out to Claire Storm who shared the history behind the Shifter.
- White bread (may substitute whole grain)
- Swiss cheese (I use Sargento 100% natural slices)
- Vine-ripened tomatoes, thickly sliced
- Dill pickles (or Seven-Day Pickles)
Layer the ham, and then the Swiss cheese on a slice of bread. (I like chipped ham for the texture and use approximately 2 ounces of ham and two slices of Swiss cheese per sandwich.)
Top with crisp lettuce, juicy tomato slices, and pickles—in that order. Spread a nice layer of mayonnaise on the top piece of bread, place over the pickles, and enjoy.
For the record, there was no mention as to which way the sandwich was cut. I cut on the diagonal–and served with potato chips. (Tucking a few of the chips in the sandwich adds a welcome crunch!)
The history given about the “Shifter” sandwich is just a promotion of someone’s family, I known Tink Lutz and his family had nothing to with the sandwich. The actual sandwich was created by a one Tuffield Oleena, who the Columbia Cafe in the 300 block of Locust St. in the twenties. The original sandwich didn’t have tomato’s because it was made in February, did Mr. Lutz know that, the Lutz Hotel was no where near the railroad tracks in Columbia. I would suggest you do a little more investigating and get the actual truth before you publish. I’m on the board of directors at the Columbia Historic Presrevation Society, should have any interest in the truth you would do well to contact us first, we have the actual documentation.
Hi Gerald, I wrote about the Shifter in the summer of 2014 after being contacted by members of the community. At the time, the details were corroborated and I certainly would not have knowingly published incorrect information…even when pertaining to a ham and cheese sandwich. I mention my primary source in the article as well as the reason for writing. It was certainly meant to be a service to the community. I do appreciate your comment and the details pertaining to Tuffield Oleena–as well as your offer for anyone who’d like to know more to reference the documentation you mention.
We always used American cheese instead of Swiss cheese!
Good memories of a great sandwich!
The “Shifter” was created by Tuffield Olena I at the Columbia Cafe at 307 Locust St. for the railroad Shifter crews in the 1910’s. First available to the public July 1920 when he moved his restaurant to 4th and Locust. (Now empty lot). Ask Jim Haug, John Hinle or a Motter family member.
Documented Proof available.
Thank you for taking the time to share your insight, Bruce. Much appreciated!
You stirred up quite a lot of memories for me & my family. I am from Columbia. My Mom used to work at Yentzer’s Restautant (later Bill’s Restaurant) in Columbia where she served Shifters to the railroad workers. Of course, she made Shifters at home for me, my girlfriend, wife, grandchildren. My wife, Erna, made them for our family.In spite of all of this history with the Shifter, we may have not used the precise order of ingredients that you uncovered with the help of Claire Storm, (aside, Claire’s husband, Al, & I went through school together). When my son worked a summer job in Columbia, guess where he ate lunch. The waitress at Bill’s Restaurant somehow provided a Shifter for a hungry college boy.
Oh yes, I managed to spend a little time at The Lower with Cliff Fox, Maurie Kauffman & friends during my own college years.
Thanks for the great comment, Jim. I’m thrilled that this story brought back memories and enjoyed reading your connection to it. It’s neat how something as simple as a sandwich can be steeped in so much history!
just read the article on shifters and love it!… Though we live in Missouri my husband is from Columbia and we love Shifters!
Thanks for the article…
You are welcome…and thank you for the virtual visit from Missouri!
What a great story Ann! Sounds like my kind of sandwich and my husband is one that loves to put potato chips on most sandwiches (if we have them on hand, which we usually do not since I cannot stop eating them!!)
And I notice in the picture how your sons are growing up so much! Such a difference from your earlier blog posts. 🙂
They are growing up quickly, that’s for sure…and I am the same way with chips. Coincidentally, I was just at the store with my younger son and he convinced me to buy a bag. They always taste so good!
Back in the 1960’s, the Hempfield Jr.-Sr. High School cafeteria often served shifters. The main difference between theirs and your recipe is that they used hamburger rolls instead of bread. I wonder if they still serve them.
Thanks for adding to the history of this storied sandwich, Kathy. Wouldn’t it be neat if they still served them?!
My lady and I were just talking about why I asked her to pick up some lettuce, and I told her about the shifter sandwich they served when I was in school. Of course she said “a what”? She’s from New York. My curiosity on the subject led me to Mr. Google, and then to you, where I saw this comment. Just had to reply. I went to Hempfield Jr. and Sr. High, and when tomato soup and a shifter sandwich were on the lunch menu, it was a glorious day! I graduated in 77. Thanks for not letting a classic fade away. I hope they do serve them still.
Mike, I love that Google brought you here and that you took a moment to comment. Thank you for that! Such fun to know that you enjoyed these while at Hempfield. At that point in my life, I wouldn’t have appreciated the tomato soup on the side, but now it sounds like a perfect match!
There was one local spot that made the Shifter with American cheese. Has to be Swiss! (Even though it’s not authentic, I do like the idea of putting some chips inside.)
This story is enough to make a good old ham & cheese taste even better! Love the history and will be making The Shifter soon!
The old standards are always worth revisiting…with or without a little twist!