This weekend on Sunday, September 11th, I gassed up the Batmobile, picked up my buddy Tim Brown, and headed up I-55 over the Mississippi River out of Memphis and into Arkansas, and then up through Missouri. We were on our way to the Popeye Picnic in Chester, IL. The route was very familiar. It’s the same one I take to go to Cape Girardeau’s Cape Comic Con or to the Metropolis Superman Celebration. It’s also the way to Lambert’s Cafe in Sikeston, MO- “home of the throwed rolls” and BOOMLAND, a couple of our favorite stops. (I’ll post about some of our trips there in a future HGWT blog.)

After leaving I-55 and taking HWY51 we went north east around Perryville, MO and crossed the mighty Mississippi again, this time into Illinois and the town of Chester– the seat of Randolph County and the home of Popeye the sailor! Chester is 65 miles south of St. Louis, and like Memphis sits high on a bluff overlooking the river and is named after another city overseas, but instead of Memphis, Egypt- it was Chester, England which was the home town of founder Samuel Smith’s wife Jane Thomas (it was originally known as “Smith’s Landing”). Chester is a very historic town and one of it’s early commodities was castor oil, and later Castor Oyl and the whole Oyl family!

Popeye was there to greet us- well, a large cut out of him on a welcome sign was. The kid in me couldn’t help but smile as I saw the smiling image of Popeye holding his can of spinach. This was the feeling we had driven 3+ hours to experience, and Popeye and Chester weren’t letting us down. Time to get out and start acting like a tourist.

Between the Chester Bridge and welcome sign was Segar Park where we saw the Chester Welcome Center and the bronze Popeye statue, our first stop on the Popeye Character Trail. The main part of the new welcome center and the Chester Chamber of Commerce office as well were closed, but the information area (and thankfully the restrooms!) were open. Inside the welcome center were tourism fliers, soda machines, Popeye art, and a flat-screen TV with a video running featuring the history of Chester and it’s relationship with Popeye and his creator Elzie Crisler Segar. Outside one family was enjoying a picnic while another was enjoying the great view of the river.

We followed the signs along the road, passed “Elvis Road” and an old cemetery, and soon were in Chester and had found another character statue- this time big Bluto! We saw an empty parking lot across from him and decided to park and do some exploring on foot. Across the street we could see other Popeye characters painted on the windows of some of the local businesses. This year’s picnic theme was “Popeye On Vacation” and many of the paintings and murals around town had the characters enjoying the beach. There was a lot of great looking architecture along this block and being a big fan of it and Popeye I wanted to see more. We took pics and peeked in storefront windows as we explored this part of Chester. There was Rough-House Pizza (“Not for wimps or Wimpys”), and we saw a sign for Sweet Peas Custard & Grill. From time to time a group of bikers would pass us by and wave. It seemed like Chester had it’s own bike week going on this weekend. Lots of amazing looking motorcycles and “trikes” were rumbling up and down the streets. We saw a few leg-powered bikes, and later we came across some classic cars making their way around the city, too. It all made me feel like we were stepping back in time and I wished I could see how it was when the real Popeye and his friends lived here and when E.C. Segar created the comic characters.

Down the street we could see a Ferris wheel and other carnival rides. Even though we had driven a little more than three hours and made a couple stops along the way, we got there a bit early and things were just starting to crank up on the midway. According to the schedule we got most things started up around noon on Sunday. Some rides were beginning to spin, people were playing games, giant inflatables were being filled with air, the ponies for the pony rides were being hitched up, and occasionally we would catch a whiff of burgers and BBQ on the grills up on State Street as the wind blew. When the wind changed direction we then caught a whiff of the ponies and decided to head back towards State Street. The smell of burgers had led us in the right direction!

We turned the corner and that’s when we saw the Wimpy statue! We now had found 3 of the 7 current statues (more to be unveiled each year). It was located in a nice park in Chester Square. It had a gazebo (why it is also known as “Gazebo Park” ), park benches, bleachers, a war memorial, flag pole, Popeye banners on the light poles, some Popeye murals on the two buildings flanking the park, and Wimpy front and center facing State Street. The weather was amazing, and the cool breeze would occasionally blow when it started to get a bit warm. It made the flags around town seem to stand at attention and wave to us all. We felt very welcome there.

One of the buildings next to Gazebo Park was the historic Opera House theater, which is now home to Opera House Antiques, Spinach Can Collectibles, and the Popeye Museum! I had met the owners in Metropolis at a comic show a few years earlier and have been wanting to get up her to visit the two former Memphians and see their Popeye collection ever since.

I loved the spinach can sign hanging above the entrance and couldn’t wait to take a look around inside. Was not disappointed with what I found on display in the museum or available for purchase in the gift shop.

As we entered Spinach Can Collectibles we were surrounded by every Popeye item you could think of- and even a real life Popeye! I had to pick up a couple tee shirts, a Chester Police patch featuring Popeye, a corn cob pipe, a ball cap, couple magnets, and some Chester postcards. Passed on the Popeye sailor hat- the Navy life just isn’t for me. There was such a huge selection in such a small retail space, yet it didn’t seem crowded at all even with the picnic crowds shopping there, too. I had a budget to stick to, but the prices were very reasonable. It really was hard to figure out what I didn’t want to buy! Being a big Batman fan it made me miss the WB stores and the fun I had shopping in those before they all closed.

The museum part is towards the back of the space past the gift shop area and is small as well, but they have things displayed well. I’ve got an old Popeye phone receiver figure and 8 or 16mm Popeye cartoon film in my collection somewhere. Each time I would look at a display case in the museum for a second or third glance I’d notice something I missed the first time around. I’ve never seen so many Popeye items in my life- wooden toys,  metal wind up toys, statues, PEZ dispensers, watches, buttons, hand puppets, games, comics, and more. As Yogurt would say, “Moichendizing!”  The space feels old, and is old- but is well maintained, and I was told the wood floors were recently added. It’s a nice touch. The staff was very friendly and helpful, and made sure we took a couple copies of the local paper and maps of the character trail. We thanked them and headed back out to see more of Chester and the Popeye Picnic.

We went down the street in search of more statues (which we found out were easier to get to by car), more murals, and other Popeye photo ops. We found lots! Businesses with Popeye on their signs and neighborhoods with Popeye characters in their yards. What I didn’t expect to see was the house for sale above, or more importantly its address- 911. Reminded me of exactly what day it was and where I was a decade ago when the 9/11 tragedy happened. I took a few pics and remembered just how scary it had been that day and eerie the week following.  As we were walking away I got a call from my stepmother Sandy in Utah and I thought the worst. Turns out she had just wanted to talk about my upcoming wedding- whew! Later I saw the flag at the Chester Fire Department flying at half mast. There was no doubt that the folks in Chester, IL remembered September 11 and all those folks who died or had to live through it all ten years ago.

All the walking around and sight seeing worked up an appetite, and since we were in the home town of Popeye we thought the best way to remedy the situation was to have a couple Wimpy burgers. Pretty tasty- and the grilled onions were great! We added some curly fries and some cold lemonade and found a shady spot to sit and enjoy our lunch. We heard a guitar player down the street playing some country music, watched other Popeye fans at a dunk tank, kids playing on a zip line, and then spotted a couple familiar folks walking down the street- it was Bluto and Olive Oyl!

Timmy took my picture with the two cartoon icons, and I thought it best not to ask where Popeye was. I didn’t want to start no trouble, and I hadn’t had me spinach. I thanked them and we headed back to where we parked the car so we could find the final 4 statues around town- two were in one direction (Cole Oyl and Olive Oyl), and the other two (Castor Oyl and Sea Hag) were in the opposite direction. They were all easy to find, and not too far from each other, but definitely best to search for in a vehicle than on foot, especially after all the walking we had already done that day.

I think my favorite location and statue was Cole Oyl. I liked that he had books stacked up next to him and that he was in front of the library, which was a very amazing looking building. I’d love to come back and “check out” the library and many of the other buildings we saw around town. I know this weekend was all about Popeye and his friends, but I’d love to see more of Chester and learn about its history and architecture. Who knew I’d want to learn more about history at a Popeye picnic?!

The annual Popeye’s Picnic is  held the first weekend following Labor Day each year and this was the 32nd one. It’s a three day event which starts on Friday afternoon with food and ends on Sunday evening with a “BANG!” during a fireworks display, with a whole lotta fun in-between! I didn’t see any spinach on a stick, or spinach to eat anywhere, but maybe Rough House Pizza has spinach on their menu. Will have to ask when I go back to visit Chester and Popeye.

For more info-

Annual Popeye Picnic

Cheter, IL Chamber Of Commerce

Spinach Can Collectibles
1001 State St
Chester, IL 62233
(618) 826-4567

Rough-House Pizza
1215 Swanwick Street
Chester, IL 62233
(618) 826-HOUSE(4687)