From the highway, Amesbury’s major distinguishing characteristic is a family sports center visible at the foot on an enormous hill. In the wintertime that snow-covered slope is home to what looks like the finest sledding in all of New England. One drives past on a sunny January day and sees a steady stream of brightly-colored plastic saucer-sleds blasting down multiple paths at top speed; one can practically hear the laughter and shrieks and squeals of delight, even from the highway, even through the closed car windows. On this weekend, however, snow was a distant memory. This was the first weekend of summer, pleasantly warm and sunny, and personal business put me on the highway, driving north for the pleasure of seeing my brother and his family before the sadness of a Sunday that required the saying of a final goodbye.
And on this sunny summery Saturday, I was about to do something I had never done before – I was taking Exit 54 off Interstate 495 in order to pay a visit to Amesbury, one of the towns Li’l Abner‘s creator, Al Capp, called home. From the highway one follows Route 150 through a few miles of nondescript residences before reaching the outskirts of the downtown area, where Route 150 gives way to Main Street.
To two of them, actually.
As I waited at the intersection for the light to change, I did a double-take. No, my eyes were not deceiving me – the two perpendicular streets were both named Main Street! The road sign marked the corner of Main and Main. I shook my head: only in New England . . .
Following Mapquest directions to a lot on Water Street, I parked and prepared to explore the downtown area. At one end of the parking lot: a pub known (for obvious reasons) as The Barn, its façade showcasing quintessential New England kitsch. The building certainly appeared old enough to have been around during Al Capp’s day, though I wondered back then if “The Barn” was simply “a barn.”
On the town’s major thoroughfares, another New England staple – a street fair – was in full swing. Pastel-topped tents dotted both sides of the street. Some offered for sale a variety of crafts – hand-made clothes, jewelry, puzzle boxes, woodwork, and more – while others served up a variety of snacks and drinks designed to help beat the summer heat. Buskers inhabited every second or third street corner, playing a guitar or a banjo, softly singing their tunes. Wandering from display to display were new parents pushing prams – teenagers in t-shirts and jeans, clutching skateboards beneath their arms – young lovers strolling arm in arm – senior citizens, out to enjoy the splendor of an early-summer day.
Making a turn off Market Street, passing under an extended brick archway, I found the item that had sparked this trip, something originally reported in the Boston Globe and also covered here in this space as “Favored Son”.
Anchored to the wall of the archway was the four-panel painting that serves as Amesbury’s new tribute to Al Capp. Created by local artist Jon Mooers, the work was inspired by the autobiographical feature from the June 24, 1946 issue of Life Magazine. You can see the Lifepiece on pages 21 – 24 of our Li’l Abner Volume 1; you can see the Mooers version right here:
I stepped in to examine the work up close, mentally comparing and contrasting it to Capp’s Lifefeature. I heard other voices behind me, but paid no attention to them – until I turned around and saw a couple, perhaps mid-to-late fifties, telling their teenaged grandson about how funny Li’l Abner was, how it was once one of the most popular comics in the world.
“And best of all, it’s back again,” I said, stepping in and offering the man one of my business cards. He could see The Library of American Comics logo on my card as I explained how we are reprinting Abner in a series of hardcovered books, with the first one now available and the second coming later on this year. Not a hard sell … rather, a random encounter that might give the family something extra to talk about and perhaps help increase everyone’s level of interest. That’s the hope, anyway …
Back on Main Street I continued my walkabout, snapping pictures, trying to capture more of the Amesbury ambiance. Al Capp is not the town’s only literary luminary; Li’l Abner is not its only claim to fame. Amesbury was also home to 19th Century poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, who returned to the town after 1845, when ill health ended his involvement in the anti-slavery movement.
The Boston Globe article on Capp included a rather snooty-sounding quote from a member of the J.G. Whittier Home Association that makes it sound as if the Greenleafers are not entirely comfortable with the town’s attempt to attract Cappites. (The exact line was, “My son or anybody younger wouldn’t really know about him [Capp]. A lot of people don’t make the connection at all” – why do I hear that being said with a Lovey Howell-style intonation?)
One side of a prominent multi-storey building is given over to a mural honoring Whittier. The artwork is clearly visible as one drives or strolls down Main Street, and as I looked at it, I found myself hoping there is room in Amesbury to honor two contributors to the arts.
Amesbury’s chief industry was not poetry or comic strips, of course – not long after Whittier settled in town, a thriving carriage-manufacturing business developed and is remembered in yet another mural on yet another Main Street building.
Capp’s wife’s maiden name was Catherine Cameron; her father, Colin Cameron, came from old money earned in the carriage trade. In the early 20th Century, the carriage business morphed into the construction of automobile bodies before the Great Depression wiped out this particular industry.
My trip up Main Street brought me to the town’s public library, which featured well-maintained grounds and an inviting atmosphere. New Englanders love their statues and in Amesbury, a statue of Josiah Bartlett sits on the edge of the library’s grounds. Bartlett was born in the town and went on to sign the Declaration of Independence, though he lived much of his life (and had most of his successes) as a resident of New Hampshire.
As I retraced my steps, making my way back to my car, I spotted the storefront of the town’s bookstore, Bertram & Oliver Booksellers. I am decidedly cool to everything “chain” – chain department stores, chain restaurants, chain home improvement stores, chain bookstores – so I was delighted to step inside and be greeted by the soothing sight of shelf upon shelf of books, a simple employee station and single cash register, and preparations being made for a kids’ reading session slated for later that day.
I spoke with B&O’s owner, the delightful Joanne Wimberly, who gave me some of her valuable time even though she was in the midst of preparing for the special children’s event. I explained why I was in town and about LOAC’s Li’l Abner reprints and she was interested to hear we weren’t reprinting the strips as comic books, but rather as hardcovers. “Ah! A graphic novel!” Joanne said. “See, I’m learning the lingo!” At her request, I promised to send her the book specs and ordering details about Abner.
By the time I left Bertram & Oliver’s it was approaching noontime, my camera’s memory was nearly full, and I had hours of driving still ahead of me. It was time to say goodbye to Amesbury – but my detour off the highway lightened the somber circumstances awaiting me on Sunday, as several friends and I gathered to pay our due respects. It rather lightened things for my oldest, closest friends as well – as the day began to wane, I summarized my visit to Amesbury, my encounter with the family near the Capp mural, my exchange with Joanne Wimberly, my surprise at seeing the intersection of Main and Main. One of my friends shook his head. “You have about the greatest job on earth,” he said.
And you know – I’d be hard-pressed to disagree!