How “Popeye the Sailor” put a rural Illinois town on the international map

Chris Koehler, of St. Louis, Missouri, rides a bicycle decorated as a giraffe while dressed up as Popeye the Sailor on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2019, during the annual Popeye Picnic and Parade in Chester, Illinois. This year marks the centennial celebration since “Thimble Theater,” E.C. Segar’s original comic strip which later featured Popeye, was published. Koehler is a member of the St. Louis-based “Banana Bike Brigade” group describe themselves as “a group of St. Louis artists dedicated to the art of the parade and the nurturing of the creative child in everyone.”

CHESTER, Ill. — Debbie Brooks has been a Popeye fan since she was a child, even when faced with the unimaginable — being kidnapped at the age of five.

In 1961, Brooks carried the sailor’s bravery in hand when she was abducted from a park in Long Beach, California, after going to play with some neighborhood friends.

Brooks said the girls she was with ran to tell their parents about what had happened which led to a police search for her. Soon after, they found she had escaped.

“They found me crying and carrying my socks and shoes,” Brooks said. “I just said ‘I was strong like Popeye.’”

Brooks said she has trouble remembering her childhood and believes it may have had to do with the occurrence in her youth but her love for Popeye led her to meet the love of her life, Mike.

Debbie said she met Mike, who she describes as a “Popeye nut,” while on an Arkansas vacation in 1972 — when the two were 15 and 16, respectively.

Six years later, they got married and started collecting Popeye memorabilia “as a joke.”

When the couple discovered a rural Illinois town’s ties to Popeye, Mike and Debbie left their Tennessee home and careers to embark on a new journey.

The sun bounces off of open fields of soybeans and corn as the whir of combines fill the air alongside the winding Illinois Route 3.

If you continue driving north, you will stumble into Chester, Illinois — a sleepy river town nestled between the Mississippi River and the rolling hills of southern Illinois.

Chester is home to Elzie Crisler Segar, the creator of the “Thimble Theater” — a comic strip that was launched before Segar’s iconic “Popeye the Sailor,” which followed the lives of characters Ham Gravy, his sweetie Olive Oyl and her brother Castor.

The strip was Segar’s third published when it appeared in the New York Journal on Dec. 19, 1919, making 2019 the strip’s centennial anniversary.

William Randolph Hearst, owner of the newspaper, also owned King Features Syndicate, which syndicated the strip, gaining national and international fame.

Segar worked his first job as a projectionist at the Chester Opera House, a late 19th-century construction, which was converted into a movie house around the 1920’s by owner Bill Schuchert.

Chester’s former Opera House is now the home of two institutions holding the theme of the town together — Spinach Can Collectibles and Opera House Antiques.

From baseball caps to bingo blotters, the front half of the shop is carefully lined with hundreds of Popeye-themed pieces for sale while the back half is set up as a museum with toys made as early as the 1930s.

“We find out about Chester being the Home of Popeye so we decided to move here,” Debbie recalls. “The pieces of the puzzle came together, from being kidnapped to meeting Mike in Arkansas, to finding out about Chester.”

When the couple moved to Chester, neither of them had jobs or a house. ”That is how into this we were,” Mike said.

25 years later, Mike and Debbie have continued keeping the spirit of Thimble Theater alive through their Popeye-themed locales and hope their efforts will strengthen the town’s tourism industry as much as spinach strengthens Popeye.

A man stops at the Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park and lights a cigarette. The smoke rises and wisps around a tall bronze statue of Popeye overlooking the entry to Chester from Missouri.

The bronze statue of Popeye was the first, said Marty Bert, Chester Fire Department chief and former mayor.

A group of Popeye supporters approached Bert in 2006 about starting the character trail — a group of statues honoring characters from the Thimble Theatre.

13 sculptures that pay homage to Segar’s creation can be found scattered across Chester. 2019 marked the addition of number 14 — a statue of Popeye’s pups.

Chester nods to Segar’s hometown roots each year with their annual Popeye Picnic and Parade, uniting fans from all fifty states and over a hundred countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe.

“This is the biggest event in Chester every year,” said Tom Page, the Mayor of Chester. “Popeye brings the community together — it’s just a huge staple for the City of Chester.”

Cathy Rinne, Chester native and Popeye fan club member, agrees.

“It’s truly like an extended family now,” Mike said. “We’ve watched people have kids and grandkids.”

The reunion of Popeye fans from around the world is an ode to “keeping spirit and fellowship alive” and sharing values that were personified through the character, Rinne said.

“It strikes a chord in the hearts of a generation that grew up with Popeye and the values that Popeye represented, not only the character himself, but also the families that we came from,” she said.

You typically wouldn’t think “a cartoon character that beat up somebody else” would make you a better person, but that is not the case. She believes folks miss the lesson of the character — trying to do the right thing, she said.

“He was very kind, very good-hearted, very chivalrous,” Rinne said. “I mean, he was the representation of good values. At the time you know he was a great guy who just didn’t take any crap.”

Jim Dello, of Bellwood, Illinois, said he learned about the town through a book titled Popeye: The First Fifty Years by Bud Sagendorf. He and his wife, Cathy, have come to Chester for the annual celebration for over thirty-five years.

“I was watching Popeye since I was a kid,” Dello said. “I became a big Popeye fan from watching it on TV.”

Segar’s original strips have an original humor which was difficult to come by anywhere else, he said.

“The characters he created are just such living breathing characters it seems like Popeye has a mind, has a soul. They’re very three dimensional,” Dello said.

The goal of the Popeye fan club is to help keep alive the values put forward by the cartoons such as kindness, fearlessness and bravery, Rinne said.

“It’s about all of the things that are missing from today’s society which you can’t get from a meme.”

Debbie said she now looks forward to continuing her work alongside Mike for the next decade and eventually celebrating Popeye’s 100th anniversary in 2029. She hopes someone will continue the legacy after the couple retires.

“We’ve been collecting for 41 years now, Debbie said. “Popeye will always be on our mind.”

This story originally appeared in The Southern Illinoisan.

Brian Munoz is a freelance multimedia journalist based in southern Illinois who tells stories out of the Midwest. He also enjoys playing classical trombone.

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