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Chester, Illinois

The first question to anybody who has arrived at this page from the Travel index page on this website might be “When there are so many famous places in the world featured on this webpage, ranging from Ayers Rock (Uluru), Singapore and London to Chernobyl, why Chester, Illinois?). Well, the reality is that during a roadtrip in the United States a sign was passed which read “Chester - Home of Popeye”. Without any pre-knowledge of the place whatsoever, a spontaneous decision was made to stop in the town and take a look around out of curiosity and the result was a pleasant surprise and a memorable experience. Chester is a relatively small city with a population of just over eight and a half thousand and the county seat of Randolph County. It is sits on a bluff above the Mississippi River and is located 61 miles (98km) south of St. Louis, Missouri. The city has eleven churches and as well as visitors attracted to the association with Popeye* creating an element of tourism, industry includes food production, and large local employers also include the maximum security Menard Correctional Center, a maximum security forensics mental health centre and Chester Mental Health Center. There are eleven churches located in Chester.

The town’s beginnings date back to Samuel Smith, who is considered the town’s founder as he built the first home here, set up a ferry across the Mississippi and began the construction of a mill in 1829. His wife, Jane, was from the city of Chester in the northwest of England and she named the new settlement in Illinois as a tribute to her home town. A general store opened here in 1830, along with a castor oil press set up by R. B. Servant, whom helped farmers in the area with methods for producing beans for his oil manufacturing process (later on, this successful business diminished as the petroleum industry took over). Other businesses in Chester that followed included The H.C. Cole Milling Company (flour, 1839), the International Shoe Company (1916), the Prim Hosiery Mill (knitting mill, 1925). A swimming pool was completed in 1941 and opened the following year, but closed in 2014 due to leaks. The cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar, the creator of Popeye, the pop culture character who first appeared in 1929, was born in Chester in 1894. More about Popeye and the life of his creator further down the page.

On arrival in the centre of Chester, a beeline was made for the very friendly “Spinach Can Collectibles” shop and mini-museum. Located at 1001 State Street, in the historic Opera House Building, the shop specialises in Popeye merchandise and carries a wide range of other collectibles. The small museum area inside contains a plethora of Popeye collectibles and paraphernalia from all over the world. The collection began in the 1970’s and since 1994, the city has recognised the store and museum as an official tourist information centre. Here is also the home of the Official Popeye Fanclub. The lady working here whom we met runs the place with her husband and was very helpful. Dotted around the city are statues of various Popeye characters and we were given a Popeye Character Trail Map which shows the location of each of them. The primary reason for being here in the United States (in August, 2017) was to see the Great American Eclipse. Another total eclipse is due to pass through the United States in 2024, following a different path over the nation roughly perpendicular to the one of 2017 and it is in Chester, the two paths of totality cross. Hence, this area in the US is unique in that it will witness two total solar eclipses at the same location on earth within a person’s lifetime. With eclipse fever running high in the town, the lady in the Popeye shop and museum freely offered us eclipse viewing goggles and an interesting article from a local newspaper about preparations being made for the event. We were also directed to the city’s Post Office, where it was possible to buy souvenir T-Shirts of the eclipse. Alas, due to the desire to visit other places and ultimately heading for the location with the highest probability of clear skies, we would not be viewing the eclipse from Chester, favouring Tennessee. There is a separate page on this website all about the Great American Eclipse, which includes a full description of the experience and some background information, as well as some spectacular photographs, and this may be found by clicking on the link Here.


Above: The Post Office in Chester, Illinois and a souvenir T-shirt which celebrates the fact that the city will be in the shadow of total solar eclipses in both 2017 and 2024.

The area in and around the city includes several state parks and historic sites. Of note is the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site, which looks over the Mississippi River. Nearby is the Pierre Menard Home (c. 1815), where the first lieutenant governor of Illinois lived. The home is a magnificent example of French Creole-style architecture. On the other side of the river from Fort Kaskaskia is Kaskaskia Island, the site of the first state capital of Illinois and currently the only part of Illinois west of the channel of the Mississippi River. A historic church on the island still holds weekly mass and near the church is the Liberty Bell of the West; a gift from King Louis XV of France and older than the famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. South of the city is the Turkey Bluffs State Fish and Wildlife Area, which has trails, scenic views and as the name suggests, turkeys. Five miles (8km) northeast of Chester is the Randolph County State Recreation Area, where popular activities include fishing, hiking and horse riding. Part of the Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge is located along the river at Chester. The city’s Evergreen Cemetery is the burial site, amongst others, of the first governor of Illinois and Cole Memorial Park is located within the city limits. Notable historic buildings in the city include the Buena Vista National Bank, Welge Brothers (1902) and the Welge Studio.

Above: The 2,826 feet (861m) Chester Bridge, spanning the mighty Mississippi River.

Chester is connected to Missouri on the other side of the Mississippi River via the Chester Bridge. In 1938, plans began in the city to build a bridge spanning the river. Construction of the bridge started in 1941 and it was completed in 1942 at a cost of $1,385,000. The total length of the bridge was 2,826 feet (861m) with two 670 foot (204m) centre spans. A bridge commission was formed by the city to govern and operate the bridge and toll facility. During a violent windstorm in 1944, the two centre spans collapsed into the river. The toll taker was able to halt the traffic and fortunately nobody was injured. It took two years to rebuild the bridge and it reopened in 1946. Since then, the Chester Bridge has been a major crossing of the Mississippi River with the nearest bridges each being an hour’s drive away, up or downstream from here. On New Year’s Eve 1989, the last bridge toll was taken and it is now free-of-charge to use. Only during the flood of 1993 has the bridge been closed since it’s reopening in 1946.
Non-Popeye related photos taken in and around the city of Chester are shown in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge):

In 1824, the famous English writer and social critic, Charles Dickens, visited Chester with his wife. Not particularly impressed during his journey on the river by steamboat, he describes the Mississippi in his American Notes, amongst other things as a “foul stream”. The American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer, Mark Twain, is thought to have stayed at Chester's Cliff House on many of his trips along the river here. Chester was used as a filming location for the films In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Fugitive (1993).

Elzie Crisler Segar and the Popeye Characters

E.C. Segar

The creator of Popeye was born in Chester, Illinois on the 8th December 1894. From an early age, he wanted to become a cartoonist. He worked at the Chester Opera House in 1906 which at the time was showing silent motion pictures. Segar took a mail order cartoon course before moving to Chicago where he broke into comics. His “Thimble Theater” in 1919 was his best and most notable creation. It featured the Oyl family; Cole, Nana, Olive, Castor, and Olive’s beau Ham Gravy. In 1929m Segar introduces Popeye into his cartoon strip. Popeye soon became the star character as Olive’s beau. Segar passed away in 1938, caused by Leukaemia but his creation of Popeye still maintains a following throughout the world as a well-known cartoon. Segar’s creations lived on thanks to his apprentice, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf until 1994 when he died of brain cancer. Several other artists have drawn Popeye over the years. Hy Eisman was selected to continue with the tradition as cartoonist in 1994.

Popeye Characters and the Statues

Several characters were modelled after real people. Popeye, himself, was based on Chester resident Frank “Rocky” Fiegel. Olive Oyl was based on another resident, Ms. Dora Paskel (a lean storekeeper), whilst J. Wellington Wimpy was based on Segar’s old boss, J. William Schuchert, owner and operator of the Opera House and the man who funded Segar’s mail order cartoon course. These people all physically resembled their characters.  As mentioned, statues of the various Popeye characters are to be seen around the town and can be seen by following a trail map. Standing in the Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park is a six foot (1.8m), 900-pound (410kg) bronze statue of Popeye the Sailor Man. At the time of the visit in 2017, there were 13 statues of Popeye characters in the town and these were as follows:

Character Statue
Location Description of Character(s)
Popeye   1977   Segar Park   Strong, hardworking, quick tempered sailorman
J. Wellington Wimpy   2006   Gazebo next to Popeye Museum   Rotund hamburger-loving moocher
Olive Oyl, Swee' Pea, & Eugene the Jeep 2007 Randolph County Court House Popeye's love/Popeye's "adoptid infink"/Magical animal
Bluto   2008   Buena Vista Bank   Monstrous man and Popeye's rival
Castor Oyl & Bernice the Whiffle Hen 2009 Memorial Hospital Brother to Olive Oyl
Sea Hag & Bernard the Vulture   2010   Wal Mart   Witch and enemy to Popeye/Sea Hag's helper
Cole Oyl   2011   Chester Public Library   Olive's father
Alice the Goon   2012   Chester Center & Rt. 3   Was slave to Sea Hag, returned as Swee' Pea babysitter
Poopdeck Pappy 2013 Cohen Field & Rt. 3 Popeye's rough and dishoest father
Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle   2014   Chester High School   Scientist and mad inventor
Rough House   2015   Reids Harvest House   Not a character - Eating and meeting place in town
Popeye's Nephews   2016   Chester Public School   Pipeye/Peepeye/Poopeye/Pupeye - mischievous in nature
King Blozo 2017 Chester City Hall Ruler of Upper Spinachovia Island

Future proposed statues for the town were, at the time of the visit, of Nana Oyl (to be positioned by the Chester Rehab Center in 2018), Harold Ham Gravy (to be positioned in Cole Park in 2019) and George W. Geezil (to be positioned in Skateland in 2020).

Popeye's Picnic and Parade

Popeye and friends are celebrated annually in Chester during “Popeye's Picnic”, a 3-day event on the weekend after Labor Day. Popeye fans travel from all over the USA and the world to partake in the long weekend’s activities. The event is filled with attractions and entertainment for all ages and many of them are free. These may include carnival rides, food stands, crafts, a petting zoo, inflatables, Popeye Film Festival, Olive Oyl’s Café, Popeye Fan Club events, smorgasbord, a model plane show, a volleyball tournament, cartoon workshops, music, and fireworks. Picnic T-shirts are on sale displaying the new theme for each Popeye Picnic and as things stand, a new Popeye Character Trail statue has been unveiled each year since 2006. Popeye related photos taken in and around the city of Chester are shown in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge):

Accompanying “Popeye's Picnic” is the “Popeye Parade”, which is held on the Saturday morning. Before the parade there is a walk and run for anyone who wants to participate. The events may include a 5k run, 5k competitive walk and/or a 1.5k fun run. Medals and trophies are awarded to the top runners and walkers in each age category. Entry includes a T-shirt. The parade includes local school bands, band fronts, such as dance teams and cheerleaders and floats from various businesses, service sectors, and US veterans. Clowns join in, passing out candy and stickers and finally there is a horse parade.

* Note: Popeye is a registered trademark

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