Alexandria cartoonist has made his mark
He started as a doodler, but ended up drawing a spot for Alexandria on the artistic map of fame.
Few residents may know that Alexandria was once home to a famous cartoonist. Cliff Sterrett, the artist/author of several comic strips, including the long-running Polly and Her Pals, spent his formative years in Alexandria, penciling his way into the town's history and its residents' hearts.
Sterrett was born on December 12, 1883 in Fergus Falls to Samuel and Virginia (Johnson) Sterrett. His father was a druggist.
On September 19, 1890, Sterrett's mother died. His father went to Duluth, leaving him in the care of his grandparents, John and Wilhemina Johnson of Alexandria. His aunt, Sallie Johnson, also cared for Sterrett and his younger brother, Paul. Sallie was the first librarian in Alexandria from 1888 to 1898.
Sterrett's grandparents lived at the Wissahickon Hotel in Alexandria, where they ran a candy and gift shop. (The hotel was located at 503 Broadway, where Cherry Street Books is currently.) His grandfather was also a toymaker.
In an April 3, 1924 edition of the Park Region Echo, fellow Alexandrians reminisced about Cliff's boyhood, recalling him as, "Too brim full of fun to apply himself to his studies and therefore a year or two below the grade that his age and intelligence merited."
The article included fond memories of a sunny, happy boy bursting with fun and a mischievous spirit who loved practical jokes. He was known as a boy who was always drawing, and whose depictions of schoolmates and teachers enticed laughter and disturbed the classroom. Teachers who tried to instill academic lessons into the boy were usually rewarded with a drawing instead.
Sterrett once got in trouble for drawing a picture of boys skinny dipping on the floor in the post office in Alexandria. And his mark may well have been left in many attics and bookcases in the area - as he was constantly drawing in the margins of his textbooks instead of studying.
When Sterrett was in high school, a clergyman named Rev. F.E. Alleyne came to Alexandria and took the teen under his wing, encouraging him to make progress in school. He also encouraged his extraordinary artistic talent.
Sterrett graduated from Alexandria High School, and with the support of the reverend, moved to New York, where he studied art at Chase Art School. His time in Alexandria was over, but his rise to fame had just begun.
From 1904 to 1908, Sterrett worked for the New York Herald, drawing actuality illustrations and caricatures. Then he went to the New York Times and later the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
In 1911, Sterrett was able to realize his dream of being a cartoonist when the New York Telegram asked him to write and draw four daily comic strips.
His first strip was Ventriloquial Vag, followed by When A Man's Married, Before and After, and For This We Have Daughters.
In 1912 Sterrett got his big break - he was hired by William Randolph Hearst to draw a comic strip called Positive Polly. It made its debut on December 4, 1912. It was initially published on the daily comic page of the New York Journal. The name of the comic strip later changed to Polly and Her Pals, which began its print run on January 13, 1913.
A year later, the strip became a Sunday page and a four-color supplement to the New York American.
Polly and Her Pals was centered around college beauty Polly Perkins and her suitors. Polly's family and a wide cast of characters residing at the Perkins' residence also played a major role in the humor and popularity of the comic strip. At its peak, Polly appeared in more than 400 newspapers.
Although Sterrett hadn't been in Alexandria for years, his comic strip often revealed the impact of his boyhood roots. He was known among fellow artists and cartoonists for incorporating colloquialisms from small-town Minnesota into Polly and Her Pals. And one of his recurring comedy themes was harsh winters and icy sidewalks.
In addition to Polly and Her Pals, Sterrett later penned other comic strips - Sweethearts and Wives (renamed Belles and Wedding Bells); And So They Were Never Married; and Damon and Pythias (renamed Dot and Dash) - which were toppers to the Sunday comic page.
Except for a brief sabbatical in 1925 when "ghost artists" took over the strip, Sterrett wrote and drew Polly and Her Pals for 46 years. Rheumatism prompted him to retire in 1958. After a lifetime of drawing, starting right here in Alexandria, he died on December 18, 1964.
Sterrett left behind him a paper trail of proof that if you pursue your passions and talents, even a doodler can write his way into history.
Polly and Her Pals
Polly and Her Pals, Volume One: 1913-1927, a compilation of the Polly and Her Pals comic strip, along with a historical essay written by Jeet Heer, was recently released. Included in the book are full-size replications of the original comic strip.
The book is published by The Library of AMerican Comics/IDW Publishing, Dean Mullaney, editor. It is available by calling Cherry Street Books in Alexandria at (320) 763-9400.
For information, visit the website LibraryOfAmericanComics.com.