While the name Popeye is known throughout the world, the same is not true for the name Elzie Segar, the man who inked the comic strip of the muscle-bound, spinach-eating sailor. It is also unlikely you know Segar was born in 1894 and raised in Chester, allowing the small southwestern Illinois town the right to claim it is the home of the comic icon.
For first-time visitors, there is no doubt Chester is Popeye’s hometown. An almost 7-foot bronze statue of Popeye is in front of the town visitor center in Elzie Segar Park. The message “Welcome to Chester-Home of Popeye” is prominently displayed on welcome signs on the main roads into town. His image is high above Chester on the water tower. If you need a policeman, or fire and rescue, you will be staring at Popeye’s image on the sleeve of those who help you. Visit City Hall and Popeye is looking down at you from the cupola on the roof.
Visitors are certain to notice several of eleven larger-than-life granite statues of Popeye’s comic strip companions along the Popeye Character Trail throughout town. Examples include a statue of Castor Oyl greeting people at the hospital, and Sea Hag standing in front of Wal-Mart. Olive Oyl looks at the Randolph County Court House from across the intersection. By 2020 five more statues will have been added.
Eventually visitors encounter Gazebo Park in the center of town where Wimpy greets those who come to admire the Popeye murals on the brick buildings that straddle the park.
But the Popeye “piece-de-résistance” is the Spinach Can Collectibles store and museum, where proprietors and museum curators Mike and Debbie Brooks await, ready to answer any questions about their cartoon hero and his creator.
“We were married in 1978 and started a Popeye collection the same year when we found a $3 Popeye poster at an antique shop,” Debbie remembers. “In 1990, we were working in Memphis and visited Chester and were surprised the only evidence this was his home town was one statue. It seemed like a good business opportunity and we decided to move here in 1994 to open our store and display our collection.”
“It all started upstairs in this 1875-era building, which was the Chester Opera House,” Debbie continues. “At age 12 in 1906, Segar was the projectionist. Between rewinding silent films he would paint caricatures of people in the audience on glass slides and project them on the movie screen for everyone’s amusement.”
Soon he was taking cartoon classes by correspondence. Not long after, he moved to Chicago where he inked several cartoon strips for the King Features. He created the strip “Thimble Theater” in 1919, based on the life of Nana and Cole Oyl, and their children Castor and Olive.
It was not until 1929 that Popeye was introduced as a temporary character hired by Castor to pilot a boat for one of the Oyl family adventures. However, the public reaction to the one-eyed, corn-cob pipe smoking sailor with anchor tattoos on his forearms was to embrace the character. The rest is history with the comic strip drawn continuously since by several artists following Segar’s death in 1938
at age 43.
Now Popeye has his own 2,000-member, world-wide fan club (based in Chester) and he has been a radio, television and movie star and the subject of numerous board games and pinball machines.
The Spinach Can is half museum, and half store selling Popeye memorabilia. In the museum, glass display cases feature rare Popeye themed-games and toys made since the 1930s. “We have 5,000 more items in our collection not on display,” Debbie says.
In front, the store sells perhaps 300 Popeye toys and logoed items from dolls to corn-cob pipes to four-foot plastic Popeye statues. Some of the items are still being made, but many are duplicates from purchased collections or antique stores.
Popeye themed tee-shirts include “Popeye for President,” and Popeye in sunglasses riding a motorcycle with his muscular forearms on the high handlebars below the words “Live Free.” On another, Popeye is about to eat a spoonful of spinach above the words “the more you eat the stronger you are.”
“We have had people come in from over 70 nations,” Debbie says. “Yesterday someone stopped from Yemen.”
“People always laugh and then ask if we sell spinach. We do,” Mike says pointing to a shelf of Allens brand green labeled Popeye spinach. “It has been manufactured continually since 1965.”
Held the weekend after Labor Day, this three-day Popeye-themed event has been an annual Chester tradition for 37 years. In 2016 the picnic will be held September 9-11.
Eye-popping facts about Popeye
- Any doubt as to Popeye’s enduring popularity was erased in 2014 when billionaire casino tycoon and art collector Steve Wynn purchased a Jeff Koons Popeye sculpture for $28 million. Popeye has also been the subject of paintings by renowned pop-artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
- In 2004, the Empire State building was illuminated in “spinach–green”
to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Popeye.
- In 1980, Popeye the movie, starred Robin Williams as the sailor in his first-ever big-screen role.
- From 1935 through 1984 Popeye’s cartoon voice was actor Jack Mercer. Between 1938 and 1942, Mercer was married to Margie Hines, the voice of Olive Oyl.
- Popeye cartoons were so popular during the Depression, sales of spinach increased by 33 percent.
- Popeye, Olive and Wimpy were based on Chester residents, Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, Dora Paskel, and J. William Schuchert, who owned the opera house and funded Segar’s artistic education.
- Crystal City, Tex. the town known as The “Spinach Capital of the World,” erected a statue of Popeye in 1937. Today the statue is inside city hall.
For more information:
Spinach Can Collectibles
1001 State Street
Chester, IL 62233