Before unveiling the newest granite statue on the Popeye and Friends Character Trail last year in Chester, Ill. (pop. 5,185), resident Cathy Rinne asked the crowd: “Who knows the first words that Popeye spoke?”
Dozens of voices bellowed in unison, “Ja think I’m a cowboy?”
Such Popeye trivia might confound nonresidents, but folks in Chester revel in the roots of the one-eyed, spinach-gulping sailor whose history is intertwined with the town’s. Popeye’s creator, Elzie Crisler Segar, was born in Chester in 1894 and modeled his comic strip characters after townspeople.
Pride in the classic comic strip is evident throughout town in murals and statues of Popeye, his sweetheart Olive Oyl and her brother Castor Oyl, adopted baby Swee’ Pea, villain Bluto and hamburger-loving mooch Wimpy. The local newspaper, Randolph County Herald Tribune, publishes “Popeye 101,” a weekly trivia column, and Chester firefighters and police officers sport Popeye’s image on their vehicles and uniform patches.
“Daily we get requests from police departments wanting our patch,” says Deputy Chief Bobby Helmers, 41, while directing traffic during the 30th annual Popeye Picnic last September.
Nearby, Rough House Pizza serves spinach pizza, and Popeye fans flock to Spinach Can Collectibles, a museum and gift shop housed in the 1875 Chester Opera House building where Segar operated a silent movie projector at age 12.
“This is the very building where the comic strip began,” says Debbie Brooks, 53. She and her husband, Mike, 53, founded the Official Popeye Fan Club in 1989. When the opera house was for sale in 1994, they couldn’t resist owning a piece of cartoon history.
“Segar was a projectionist upstairs and while he’d rewind the films, he’d draw pictures of locals and project them onto glass slides and the screen,” Mike says.
Segar’s boss, Bill Schuchert, recognized the young artist’s talent and paid for his mail-order cartooning lessons. Segar eventually landed a job with King Features in New York, where he created the Thimble Theatre comic strip starring the Oyl family in 1919.
“Uncle Bill loved hamburgers,” says Ernie Schuchert, 82, of Chester, about his great-uncle. “The story is that he’d send Segar to Weibusch Saloon next door to get hamburgers.”
When Segar drew Wimpy, a character renowned for offering to pay Tuesday for a hamburger today, he looked like Schuchert. Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, a local one-eyed, pipe-smoking tough guy, inspired the Popeye character, and lanky storekeeper Dora Paskel, who wore her hair in a tight bun and clunky shoes, sparked the idea for Olive Oyl.
Though Popeye became the central character in the comic strip, Segar didn’t create him until 1929 when Castor Oyl needed someone to pilot a boat to Dice Island for his get-rich-quick scheme. On the dock, he spied Popeye and asked, “Hey, are you a sailor?” and Popeye retorted, “Ja think I’m a cowboy?”
The independent sailor with his peculiar speech and phrases—such as “I yam what I yam”—was so adored by readers that he soon replaced Harold Ham Gravy as Olive Oyl’s boyfriend and became the main character in the comics and later television cartoons.
“I like the little guy standing up for himself, protecting himself and what he holds dear to him,” says fan club member Ryan Maxwell, 23, of Dyer, Ind. (pop. 13,895), in explaining Popeye’s appeal.
The sailor is recognized worldwide, says cartoonist Hy Eisman, 83, of Glen Rock, N.J., who has drawn the comic strip since 1994. He recalls an incident inside the Sistine Chapel where an Italian tour guide noticed a Popeye pin worn by his wife, Florenz. When Florenz said that he was the Popeye cartoonist, the guide whipped out a piece of paper.
“Everybody else was looking up at the ceiling, and she said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to draw Popeye for my husband,’” Eisman recalls. “I upstaged Michelangelo.”
But nowhere is Popeye more popular than in Chester where creator Elzie Segar’s great-niece Ruth Ann Segar Welge, 66, understands the timeless appeal of the sailor man and his fellow comic strip characters.
“Popeye is liked because he’s the common man fighting for everything he gets,” Welge says. “He’s a scrapper, and all those characters were here in Chester.”